Tags: print

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Design sprinting

James and I went to Ipswich last week for work. But this wasn’t part of an ongoing project—this was a short intense one-week feasibility study.

Leon from Suffolk Libraries got in touch with us about a project they’re planning to carry out soon: replacing their self-service machines with something more up-to-date. But rather than dive into commissioning the project straight away, he wisely decided to start with a one-week sprint to figure out exactly what the project would need to go ahead.

So that’s what James and I did. It was somewhat similar to the design sprint popularised by GV. We ensconced ourselves in the Ipswich library and packed a whole lot of work into five days. There was lots of collaboration, lots of sketching, lots of iterative design, and some rough’n’ready code. It was challenging, but a lot of fun. Also: we stayed in a pretty sweet AirBnB.

Our home for the week. This is a nice AirBnB.

You can read all about it in our case study. You can also read all about from Leon’s point of view on his blog:

I can’t recommend this kind of research sprint enough. We got a report, detailed technical validation of an idea, mock ups and a plan for how to proceed, while getting staff and stakeholders involved in the project – all in the space of 5 days.

I think this approach makes a lot of sense. By the end of the week, James and I felt pretty confident about estimating times and costs for the full project. Normally trying to estimate that kind of thing can be a real guessing game. But with the small of investment of one week’s worth of effort, you get a whole lot more certainty and confidence.

Have a look for yourself.

dConstruct 2015 podcast: Carla Diana

The dConstruct podcast episodes are coming thick and fast. The latest episode is a thoroughly enjoyable natter I had with the brilliant Carla Diana.

We talk about robots, smart objects, prototyping, 3D printing, and the world of teaching design.

Remember, you can subscribe to the podcast feed in any podcast software you like, or if iTunes is your thing, you can also subscribe directly in iTunes.

And don’t forget to use the discount code ‘ansible’ when you’re buying your dConstruct ticket …because you are coming to dConstruct, right?

Making

There’s definitely something stirring in the geek zeitgeist: something three-dimensional.

Tim Maly just published an article in Technology Review called Why 3-D Printing Isn’t Like Virtual Reality:

Something interesting happens when the cost of tooling-up falls. There comes a point where your production runs are small enough that the economies of scale that justify container ships from China stop working.

Meanwhile The Atlantic interviewed Brendan for an article called Why Apple Should Start Making a 3D Printer Right Now:

3D Printing is unlikely to prove as satisfying to manual labor evangelists as an afternoon spent with a monkey wrench. But by bringing more and more people into the innovation process, 3D printers could usher in a new generation of builders and designers and tinkerers, just as Legos and erector sets turned previous generations into amateur engineers and architects.

Last month Anil Dash published his wishlist for the direction this technology could take: 3D Printing, Teleporters and Wishes:

Every 3D printer should seamlessly integrate a 3D scanner, even if it makes the device cost much more. The reason is simple: If you set the expectation that every device can both input and output 3D objects, you provide the necessary fundamentals for network effects to take off amongst creators. But no, these devices are not “3D fax machines”. What you’ve actually made, when you have an internet-connected device that can both send and receive 3D-printed objects, is a teleporter.

Anil’s frustrations and hopes echo a white paper from 2010 by Michael Weinberg called It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology:

The ability to reproduce physical objects in small workshops and at home is potentially just as revolutionary as the ability to summon information from any source onto a computer screen.

Michael Weinberg also appears as one of the guests on an episode ABC Radio’s Future Tense along with Tom Standage, one of my favourite non-fiction authors.

The 3-D Printer - Future Tense - ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) on Huffduffer

But my favourite piece of speculation on where this technology could take us comes from Russell Davies. He gave an excellent talk as part of the BBC’s Four Thought series in which he talks not so much about The Internet Of Things, but The Geocities Of Things. I like that.

BBC - Podcasts - Four Thought: Russell M. Davies 21 Sept 2011 on Huffduffer

It’s a short talk. Take the time to listen to it, then go grab a copy of Cory Doctorow’s book Makers and have a poke around Thingiverse

Spacelift

My sojourn up the western seaboard of the United States has come to an end. It began in San Diego with the final An Event Apart of the year, which was superb as always. From there, I travelled up to San Francisco for Cindy and Matt’s wedding celebration, followed by a few days in Seattle. The whole trip was rounded out back in California at the wonderfully titled Institute For The Future in Palo Alto. For that was the location of Science Hack Day San Francisco.

It was an amazing event. Ariel did a fantastic job—she put so much effort into making sure that everything was just right. I suspected it was going to be a lot of fun, but once again, I was blown away by the levels of ingenuity, enthusiasm and sheer brilliance on display.

In just 24 hours, the ingenious science hackers had created particle wind chime which converts particle collisions into music that Brian Eno would be proud of, grassroots aerial mapping with balloons which produced astonishing results (including an iPad app), as well as robots and LEDs a-plenty. The list of hacks is on the wiki.

Science Hack Day San Francisco Science Hack Day San Francisco Science Hack Day San Francisco Science Hack Day San Francisco

My own hack was modest in scope. Initially, I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner and decided to build something around my favourite piece of not-yet-existing technology: the .

The idea

Spacelift compares the cost efficiency of getting payloads into geosynchronous orbit using a space elevator compared to traditional rocketry. Basically, it’s a table. But I’ve tried to make it a pretty table with a bit of data visualisation to show at a glance how much more efficient a space elevator would be.

The payloads I’ve chosen are spacecraft. Beginning with the modest Voyager 1, it gets more and more ambitious with craft like an X-Wing or the Millennium Falcon before getting crazy with the USS Enterprise and the Battlestar Galactica.

So, for example, while you could get a TIE-fighter into the Clarke belt using a single , two , or three , it would cost considerably more than using a space elevator, where you’re basically just paying for the electricity.

If you click on the dollar amount for each transport mechanism, you’ll see the price calculated as a tower of pennies. Using a , for example, will cost you a tower of pennies 22 times larger than a space elevator, assuming a space elevator is at least 38,000 kilometres tall/long. Using a space elevator, on the other hand, requires spending a tower of pennies about the same height as itself. I don’t even bother trying to visualise the relative height differences for getting anything bigger than the Tantive IV into orbit as it would require close to infinite scrolling.

I’m fairly confident of the cost-per-kilogram values for the rockets while the is necessarily fuzzy, given that the mechanism doesn’t exist yet. But by far the trickiest info to track down was the mass of fictional spacecraft. There’s plenty of information on dimensions, speed and armaments, but very little on weight. Mathias saved the day with some diligent research that uncovered the motherlode.

Having such smart, helpful people around made the whole exercise a joy. It was quite a pleasure to walk over to a group of hackers, ask Is anyone here a rocket scientist? and have at least one person raise their hand. The constant presence of Cosmos playing on a loop just added to the atmosphere of exploration and fun.

Implementation

I’ve put the code on GitHub, ‘cause that’s what a real hacker would do. It’s my first GitHub repository. Be gentle with me.

There’s CSS3 and HTML5 a-plenty. I deliberately don’t use the IE shim to enable styling of HTML5 structural elements in lesser versions of Internet Explorer; there wouldn’t be much point delivering RGBa, opacity and text-shadow styles to a browser that can’t handle ‘em.

The background colour changes depending on the payload. I’m using a variation of the MD5 colour encoding popularised by Dopplr and documented by Brian in his excellent new book, Designing With Data.

I’m using League Gothic by The League Of Movable Type for the type—ya gotta have a condensed font for data visualisations, right?

There’s also a google-o-meter image from the Google chart API.

Needless to say, the layout is responsive and adapts to different viewing environments …including print.

Spacelift, printed

Using CSS transforms, each page of table of price comparisons becomes a handy page to print out and stick on the office wall to remind yourself why the human race needs a space elevator.

Microprinter has a posse

One of the coolest things I saw when I was at PaperCamp was Tom’s microprinter:

…an experiment in physical activity streams and notification, using a repurposed receipt printer connected to the web.

Now there’s a wiki where people—like Roo Reynolds—can come together and share their experiments in microprinting:

Hackers across the country are buying up old old receipt printers and imaginatively repurposing them into something new.

It’s such a great little step on the way to a Web of Things. Here’s another such step, from Fluid Interfaces, built for less than $350 using a webcam, a 3M projector, a mirror and a mobile phone:

Students at the MIT Media Lab have developed a wearable computing system that turns any surface into an interactive display screen. The wearer can summon virtual gadgets and internet data at will, then dispel them like smoke when they’re done.

Sounds like a way of levelling up in the game of being Matt Jones:

He sees mobile as something of a super power device and described something he calls “bionic noticing” - obsessively recording curious things he sees around him, driven by this multi-capable device in his pocket.

Typorn

My geek social calendar has been quite full over the past few days. On Saturday, I—along with half of the web developers in the land—went to Maidenhead for Drew and Rachel’s wedding.

Just as with Norm!’s wedding a few weeks ago, ‘twas a lovely, heartwarming affair. The pièce de résistance was the wedding “cake”: a tower of the finest British cheeses. Needless to say, I took many pictures and dutifully tagged them with the official wedding tag.

The weekend’s shenanigans extended into the start of the week. Rather than spending Monday at work, the Clearleft team made an outing to Ditchling Museum.

Despite its small size, the village of Ditchling looms large in the world of typography. and both lived and worked there. As a result, the museum’s collection is veritable treasure trove of typey goodness.

But we didn’t just spend the day ooh-ing and ah-ing over the wonderful pieces on display. We rolled up our sleeves and started using the printing press for ourselves, under the tutelage of Phil Baines. You may remember him from such websites as Public Lettering and such books as Penguin by Design.

It was a lot of fun. I can only echo what Stan said of his experience with the tactile inkiness of movable type:

I adore the way I can touch the past through the old metal type and really appreciate typography on a new level. I really can’t recommend classes like this enough. If you are a lover of type, you really owe it to yourself to spend some time with letterpress printing.

I was practically giggling with glee as I set 60pt Baskerville with Richard—my font of choice for Huffduffer. Handling the metal, smelling the ink, operating the printing press …it was simultaneously rough and sensual.

If you share my fetishism for the printed word, feel free to browse through my stash on Flickr. More delights are on display from Relly, Cennydd and James.

Wireframework

There’s been a lot of buzz lately around a new CSS framework called Blueprint. It’s basically a collection of resources pulled together from other sources: Khoi’s grids, Richard’s vertical rhythm, Eric’s reset and more.

Some people—including contributors to the CSS—have expressed their reservations about the non-semantic class names used in the framework. That’s a valid concern but, as Simon pointed out in the comments to Mark’s post, you don’t have to restrict yourself to those class names: you can always add your own semantics to the markup.

I don’t see myself using Blueprint. It just seems too restrictive for use in a real-world project. Maybe if I’m building a grid-based layout that’s precisely 960 pixels wide it could save me some time, but I’m mostly reminded of the quote apocryphally attributed to Henry Ford about the Model T:

The customer can have any color he wants so long as it’s black.

Unless I’m creating cookie-cutter sites, I don’t think a CSS framework can help me. That said, I think a framework like Blueprint has its place.

At Clearleft, a lot of our work involves wireframing. Every Information Architect has their own preference for tools and formats for creating wireframes and prototypes: some use Visio, others Omnigraffle. James and Richard usually start with paper and then move on to HTML, CSS and even a dab of JavaScript.

This results in quick wireframes that illustrate hierarchy, are addressable and allow for a good level of interaction. Creating HTML wireframes requires a different mindset to creating documents intended for the Web. You don’t have to worry about cross-browser CSS, bulletproof markup or unobtrusive JavaScript. With those concerns out of the equation, the benefits of using cookie-cutter code really come to the fore.

So while I might have reservations about using a JavaScript library on a production site, I’d have no such qualms when it comes to generating a quick prototype. The same goes for Blueprint. I think it could be ideally suited to HTML wireframes.

I may be a bit of a control freak, but I’d no sooner use a CSS framework for a live site than I’d use clip art for images. I firmly believe that creating good markup is a craft that, like good design, takes time. It may seem unrealistic to some, but I don’t want to compromise that quality without a very good reason.

That’s my hard-nosed attitude when it comes to creating documents for the World Wide Web. If the documents are intended purely as wireframes for internal use, then my attitude softens considerably. Then I think a framework like Blueprint could really shine.

Print stylesheets

CSS Naked Day was fun. It felt almost voyeuristic to peek under the CSS skirts of so many sites. It also made me realise that the browser default styles are what people are going to see if they decide to print out a page from many CSS-based sites.

I’ve had a rudimentary print stylesheet in place for Adactio for a while now, although I should probably revisit it and tweak it some time. But a lot of other sites that I’ve designed have been woefully lacking in print stylesheets.

For instance, the situation with the DOM Scripting site was brought home to me when I received this message from Adam Messinger:

Would it be possible to get a print stylesheet for the errata page that does a better job of preserving the table layout? As it is now, it’s sometimes hard to tell which page numbers match up to what errors. Just some borders on the table would help a lot.

That one made me slap my forehead. Of course! If ever there was a web page that was likely to be printed out, the errata for a printed book would be it.

As well as adding borders to the errata table, I set to work on creating a stylesheet for the whole site. It was fairly quickly and painless. I hid the navigation, let the content flow into one column, set the font sizes in points and used a minimum amount of colour.

DOM Scripting blog on screen DOM Scripting blog in print

I did much the same for Jessica’s site, WordRidden.

WordRidden on screen WordRidden in print

Principia Gastronomica was crying out for a print stylesheet. Half of the entries on that blog are recipes. Most people don’t have computer screens in their kitchens so it’s very likely that the recipes will be printed out.

A lot of the entries on Principia Gastronomica make heavy use of images. Everyone likes pictures of food, after all. I was faced with the question of whether or not to include these images in the printed versions.

In the end, I decided not to include the images. Firstly, it’s a real pain trying to ensure that the images don’t get split over two pages (page-break-before would be a draconian and wasteful solution). Secondly, I bowed to Jessica’s wisdom and experience in this matter. She often prints out recipes from sites like Epicurious and, when she does, she wants just the facts. Also, these are pages that are likely to printed out in the home, probably on a basic inkjet printer, rather than in an office equipped with a nice laser printer.

Principia Gastronomica on screen Principia Gastronomica in print

If you’re implementing a print stylesheet for your site, I highly recommend reading Richard’s guide, The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web. All the advice is good for screen styles, but is especially applicable to print.

These articles on A List Apart are also required reading:

In an interview over on Vitamin, Eric makes the point that context is everything when deciding which stylesheets to serve up. Clearly, articles on a A List Apart are likely to printed out to be read, but the front page is more likely to be printed out to get a hard copy of the design.

For a detailed anatomy of a print stylesheet, be sure to read the latest in Mark’s Five Simple Steps to Typesetting on the web series: Printing the web.

Design, old and new

One of the very first panels on the very first day of South by Southwest was Traditional design and new technology. The subject matter and the people couldn’t be faulted but there were some technical difficulties with the sound. I was at the back of the room and the dodgy mics made it hard going at times.

Khoi and Mark had some really good insights into the role of traditional design disciplines in the brave new media world. I enjoyed the fact that the panelists weren’t always in agreement: I like it when things get stirred up a bit.

Towards the end of the discussion, a question came up that turned the subject on its head: how has new technology affected old media. I didn’t get the chance to mention it at the time, but I immediately thought of last year’s Guardian redesign.

There are a lot of very webby touches to the new-look Guardian: blue underlined “links”, sidebars with the acronym FAQ, etc. Perhaps it’s a result of this webbiness, but I really, really like the paper’s new look and feel.

I’m not the only one. When Shaun came to visit, he was quite taken with the Guardian. The custom made typeface — Egyptian — sealed the deal.

I didn’t post my initial reaction to the paper’s new look because I wanted to allow some time to live with it for a while. My feelings haven’t changed though. I still like it a lot.

I do wonder, though, whether my emotional response to the design stems from the fact that I’m web-based kind of guy with a web-based aesthetic. It would be interesting to compare my reaction (or Shaun’s) with that of someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time browsing websites.