With all the digital communications tools I have, why does my brain sometimes want pen and paper?

21 April, 2010

On the train this morning I had with me my laptop, iPhone, Flip video camera and Zoom audio recorder. But my brain wanted pen and paper: why?

It wasn’t that I couldn’t use what I had, but that in order to get my thoughts out of my head relatively intact my brain needed another conduit.

The thing is, thoughts are for our heads. I suspect the tools we have for communicating them are never really adequate because they tend only to accommodate a particular way of communicating (writing or speaking, for example), rather than attempt to make sense of the incredibly complex set of electronic pulses that constitute our thoughts.

Therefore the tools also don’t take into account how those pulses are affected by environment, by the risk of other thoughts – however subconscious – being sparked and getting in the way, or by how the body feels comfortable transmitting specific thoughts at specific moments and in specific ways. Environment and physical state seem important for conceiving and communicating thoughts; what appear arbitrary and insignificant changes in them appear to have a profound effect on the cognitive process.

I was told once that the best way to remember a dream when you wake from it is not to move until you’ve consciously committed it to memory: when you move your head, everything vanishes. I have no scientific verification for this, but it works for me every time. The only problem is remembering not to move in the first place.

I want to be able to think physically – and publicly, if the mood takes me – without the constraint of tools. Sometimes I wish for an augmented reality that allows me to interact fully with my physical surroundings.

For example, the augmented bit would allow me to push aside the walls of my house to create a bigger space in which to draw massive diagrams on the floor, and then share the room with a friend so they can visit and see my diagram. The real-life bit would allow me to roll up the diagram, stick it in a tube and post it to my friend. Alternatively, I might write big scrawls in the air, then scrunch them up and throw them into the real, physical, wastepaper basket by the telly, at which point they would be deleted.

I expect some clever people are already working on something marvelous along these lines, but I’d probably still have to choose between the version that’s compatible with my friend’s house and the one that’s compatible with my wastepaper basket.

So, for now at least, I need to find a pen.

Web Design Dashboard

30 September, 2009

A set of very handy lists of online web development tools, neatly and clearly laid out. Covers inspiration and design as well as markup, coding and marketing.

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If we’re communicating graphically we need to understand graphic communication, not how to use Quark

12 August, 2009

We often make the mistake of assuming that learning how to use a tool will somehow make us good at the job the tool was designed for. I believe our efforts are better spent on first learning the skills and then choosing the tools.

Take Quark Xpress, an industrial-strength tool for graphic design professionals. Professionals. In other words it’s for people who have an understanding of the underlying concepts and principles of typography and graphic design, and not simply a ‘good eye for it’. If we don’t have that understanding we may as well use Microsoft Word. And I don’t mean that derogatorily: with a basic understanding of typography – grids, leading, kerning, proportion, space, etc – an awful lot can be achieved in Word.

Too often we presume that it’s easy, that the tool will do it for us: at best this is naiive; at worst it is disrespectful and undermining both of the professional designer and of the integrity of our own work. We wouldn’t presume that simply learning to use Microsoft Word will make us write good novels: by the same token we shouldn’t presume that learning to use Quark Xpress will make us produce good leaflets.

More of us than ever are using the written word and images to communicate, so we need to start appreciating the hard-won skills required for good graphic communication. Instead of spending £500 on a two-day Quark Xpress Essentials course, people would be much better advised to spend £400 on a week-long basic typography or graphic design course. Then they can choose which tool is right for them: be that Quark, InDesign, Scribus or even Word.

We should be learning the skills to make our communication more effective, not how to use a tool that we won’t appreciate.

So, this is what I do…

6 August, 2009

I find it exceptionally difficult to believe that I have any skills of note, and keep meaning to force myself to try and audit them just to check. So here I’ve spelled out what I do in my day job, and some of the challenges I’ve faced.

Although I’m still not sure I know any more than other people in a similar role, I have surprised myself with all the stuff I do (albeit badly, most of the time) without really realising it.

I’ve been working for the same organisation since 1995 (yes, 1995). I haven’t left in part because I’m rubbish at moving on, but mainly because I love it there (that’s a good thing for me; possibly a bad thing for them). I’ve been the Website Manager officially since 2002, but have been responsible for the corporate website (we have a number of others now) since we decided we wanted one back in 1998.

I had been using email and the internet for a few years, but I knew absolutely nothing about web development. We were recommended some two-person operation who ‘built websites’ and I went on a basic HTML course in order to understand what they were talking about. After that I downloaded and printed (printed!) the HTML 3 specification, and then the HTML 4 one. I bought myself a PC and in my spare time I faffed around with HTML, image editing, and general web nonsense. I never got into building my own websites, but instead concentrated my pedantic energies on tweaking the organisation’s pages.

Since then the organisation has gone through some major changes. It’s had to reappraise itself a few times due to the changing climate within which it was working, and has undergone major organisational restructuring. It has taken on lots of diverse projects and has almost trebled the number of staff. The website has had to develop with and adapt to all of this.

At this point I should explain that the website operates on a tiny annual budget, with which it has to support the entire organisation. That’s not a complaint, in fact it’s something I’m quite proud of, but it serves to add context to the developments we’ve made.

The other thing I want to explain at this point is that I have never changed contractors. I have thought about it once or twice; but the commitment, integrity, economy, friendliness and willingness with which they operate has just been too valuable to lose. They are a small outfit – there are three of them now – and I have still never been seduced by the sugary words and golden promises of the big, slick operators.

And I’m not good at making decisions; I tend to get stuck in a cycle of weighing things up. On the rare occasion that I have considered changing contractors, I have thought that my reluctance to do so stemmed from my fear of change and of committing to a decision. Maybe it did; but I’m bloody glad I chose not to move. Building such easy working relationships takes time; yes, some patches of that time are happier than others, but the relationships don’t develop if you don’t give them the chance. And the smaller and more personal the organisation, the easier it is bond with.

Added to that, it’s only fairly recently that I’ve begun to appreciate the different skills that we all bring to the job. In the outset I presumed they could do everything web-related: of course they couldn’t, any more than I can now. But those skills are all developed along the way: what I now have is a pretty good understanding of what we’re all capable of achieving, rather than what we can only demonstrate at any given time. That doesn’t happen if you don’t give the relationship time to evolve.

But back to the website itself. As the organisation grew, and the projects became more abundant and more independent, it became clear that we needed to devolve some of the responsibilities for the upkeep of the website to project staff. This meant procuring a content management system (CMS), which in turn meant understanding what the project staff would need to be able to do with it (with no way of knowing themselves, and all with different and changing requirements), and with next to no budget. So we built it ourselves. Or rather, I cack-handedly scoped it out and my contractor sweated blood turning my messy concept into a beautifully coded reality.

The CMS development suffered severe ‘mission-creep’, mainly because we were learning a lot of what we needed as we went along. The bespoke nature of the CMS, possibly along with a naivity on our part of what we were taking on, has meant that it is not all that user-friendly or intuitive. It also means that we now have a long list of requirements for any new CMS, and would have a hard job ensuring that everything is covered off should we move to a new one (as is possibly the intention). In itself this isn’t a big issue, provided we audit the requirements carefully; the problem is more that my understanding of the web is now more sophisticated, and I need to decide whether the nuances of those ‘requirements’ are actually still right for us.

Aside from the CMS, there are certain functions that the website has to discharge which don’t have a counterpart in the organisational structure. This requires of me expertise in areas that I have no real experience of – such as managing the sale and tracking of resources or organising an organisation-wide image library – in order to plan new developments.

In fact, I need to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades.

I’m a web designer

I write a lot of the underlying HTML for the website, and most of the Cascading Styles Sheets (CSS). It could be a lot better, but at least I know that. I designed the concept and layout of the current site, and am trying gradually to introduce developing standards such as CSS3 and microformats. I edit and optimise images: I really want to be in a place where people can store, share, label and control images without having to worry about file formats and pixel numbers, but at the moment I deal with all of that myself.

I’m a writer

I have to be able to write well. I have written a lot of the content in the past, and am editing a lot of it now. This requires a good understanding of how to communicate on a web page, and a solid writing style. Oh well.

I’m an editor and a sub-editor

One of the problems with enabling people to manage their own bits of a website is how you ensure the integrity of the writing. Style guides and management structures help, but where those fail someone has to take responsibility for what’s published on the site. So far that’s been me.

I’m a learner

In order to be of any use to the organisation I have to keep up to speed with the constantly changing nature of the web. For example I explore the benefits of social media, and I manage and advise on our approach to social media tools. I also have to have a pretty solid understanding of the anatomy of the web and of web pages, in order to know how best to support the online work of the organisation.

I’m a teacher

I have to be able to explain abstract concepts in plain English to staff and managers. I have to train staff in the relevant areas of the CMS, and help them understand how the website – and the web in general – can support their work. As well as being clear I also have to be inspiring. Not sure I manage either of those, but hey.

I’m a web accessibility champion

There all sorts of reasons why I would be doing my job badly if I didn’t appreciate the importance of web accessibility, but I won’t go into that here. However, the charity I work for encourages and enables civic engagement, which to my mind means that we must be as inclusive as possible: and that means being as accessible as possible.

I’m a pioneer

I encourage and support staff in the use of web technologies, and gently push the online boundaries of the organisation. I try to adopt emerging technologies where appropriate, and make a point of personally adopting others (partly for fun and partly to keep up to speed).

I’m a manager

In theory. I’m not very good at this bit, but I do have to do it. The site would be nothing without the contractors and all the other contributors, but they all need pulling together. I also have to try and balance myself between the priorities of the External Relations team (which is where my role is located) and those of the individual projects.

I’m a communications professional

As part of the External Relations team I also support the core communications function of the organisation, which requires an understanding of communications more generally.

I’m a strategist

The work of our organisation is particularly diverse, and so defining what the corporate website is and how it supports the various needs of the projects is an ongoing and challenging task. I take a lead on how we communicate ourselves via the web; I never get this right in everyone’s eyes (least of all in mine), but I chip away at trying to make it better.

I’m wrong

I need people to be confident that I know what I’m talking about, but I must never presume that I’m right. I can believe I’m doing the right thing, and for the right reasons; but if I ever get too complacent about standards or ignore other people’s views, then the organisation really needs to find someone else.

So there you have it. I don’t claim to do any of this with any flair whatsoever, but I like to think I might be good at some of it.

Mind Tools

12 June, 2009

Anyone who knows me will know how bad I am at making decisions. Not knowing how to choose can result in procrastination, or – worse – avoidance. That's not good for someone who's responsible for managing an organisation's corporate web strategy. Mind Tools has actually been very helpful for me. Although at first glance it looks like it's trying to sell you something, it'sactually a rich resource of advice for decision-making and personal management.

Visit Mind Tools