post

The Year 2007 on Pixelyzed.com

An overview of the last year on pixelyzed.com

Now that 2008 is just about to start, I thought it would be a good idea to write a pixelyzed.com style year end review.

There’s been a lot of activity in our little world last year as well as in other areas of the software industry. Throughout 2007, I discussed products and technologies that can help our work flows and processes in new ways and my own process has evolved significantly. Now I’ll try to summarize some of it and share some of my best finds of the year in several categories. There are some new things in here I didn’t discuss before so enjoy!

pixelyzed is growing

Although I still am not a very prolific blogger, Pixelyzed has grown in readership last year and I have made an effort to share my more interesting discoveries as they apply to Web designers and creative professionals. I have also tried to write about more varied topics and I will keep doing so in the new year.

2007 has been a year of growth and change for my career as well. I have tackled a couple of large Web design projects and have started doing sub-contracting work again.

Behind the scenes, I have been working on a new version of my professional site webfocusdesign.com and started marketing locally more aggressively. Once the new version of that site goes up sometime in the next few months, I will intensify these marketing efforts.

Another project I’ve been working on is my wife’s portfolio site as she is a gifted artist- painter. I’ve gone through a few design iterations and we finally decided to go with a very simplified and uncluttered look. I’ve looked at dozens of painters and photographers’ Web sites and realized that the better ones really put the emphasis on the artist’s work and everything else recedes. We also decided to go Flash all the way which means I’ll have to re-acquaint myself with it and give myself a quick crash course. If anyone has good advice on good Flash books, I’m all ears. I don’t want books that go through the basics but books that teach solid techniques for real world projects and functionality.

The year in software

This is a really quick overview as I will write a separate post dedicated to the year in software to be published later. I must say that 2007 has been a very exciting year for me. Here are a few of the standout products I’ve been using last year which have been helping me get my job done more efficiently.

Adobe Creative Suite 3

The major new software suite release from Adobe… and the first iteration of the integration of existing Adobe products and former Macromedia ones. There was a lot to get excited about here as most products received serious upgrades. Standouts for me include Illustrator and InDesign.

Fireworks CS3

In spite of all our speculation, Fireworks is still alive and got better under Adobe’s care. After the extreme disappointment that Fireworks 8 was, Fireworks CS3 was an encouraging release. But Adobe still has a lot of work to do to fulfill Fireworks’ early promise as key areas of the application have been neglected for years and still have got no love in CS3. Looking forward to CS4, there are several key areas I’d like to see improve. More in my next post…

FreeHand MXa

Creative Suite 3 is the release that finally and officially marked the death of FreeHand and the official word from Adobe is that FreeHand users should now migrate to Illustrator. This decision leaves a lot of long time FreeHand users who feel that Illustrator is not an adequate replacement in the cold and I feel for them. Removing competition is never good for any industry and this is no exception. More later…

MindJet MindManager 7

MindManager is my best software find of 2007. It’s the application that had the biggest impact on my process and work flow. It is a fantastic knowledge and information management tool that is flexible enough to help through all phases of a Web design projects. I would really encourage every creative professional to at least try it. I will keep sharing tips and ideas on how I use MindManager in my own work through the new year so stay tuned!

JCVGantt Pro 3.0

The perfect companion to MindManager, JCVGantt can both be use as a standalone application and as an add-in for MindManager. Planning and scheduling projects has always been a hard and tedious task for me. JCVGantt Pro makes it a lot easier and integrates seamlessly with MindManager. It is extremely flexible in how it lets users set resources parameters like working and non-working times and days, hourly and fixed costs and more. It updates the Gantt charts, total costs and the MindManager maps it is tied to in real time as you make changes to resources or tasks. A great discovery for me.

Studiometry 5.0

The other piece in my project management and administration puzzle. I’ve been using Studiometry since mid 2006 to track and keep client and project information, track communications but also as a timer for billable time and then for invoicing. Studiometry does a lot more than that and it got a major upgrade to version 5.0 in 2007. Check it out!

FeedDemon 2.5

Control information overload and get the latest info from all your favourite Web sites in one place. I’ve been using FeedDemon to subscribe and read RSS feeds for a while now (since it first came out) and I couldn’t live without it. It this age of information overload, it’s the main “hub” through which I get industry news and more. It has too many features to go into here but if you use Windows, this is the only feed reader you need to consider…

Windows Vista

Vista got a bad rap last year for a variety of reasons but I love it myself. Moving to Vista has brought me little trouble and a real boost in enjoyment and productivity. It’S true that my new computer has the powerful hardware to support it so Vista for me is fast and extremely stable. Much more so in fact than XP ever was for me. A great surprise for me and I can’t wait to see the improvements SP1 brings.

The year in music

Many of you know I’m a musician and a music fanatic in general. 2007 was a great year in music for me as well. I’ll also post a separate entry on my musical finds of the last year but here’s a little taste of my 3 best musical discoveries of 2007. More later…

XM Radio

2007 is the year I discovered satellite radio and more specifically, XM Radio. It is where I discovered several of the artists who’s music I fell in love with in 2007. XM Radio has more varied playlists than Sirius and more interesting channels. I carry my radio from the home to my car and the office and I re-discovered the joy of listening to music for hours. I discovered many new talents on XM and I bought more CDs in the last year alone than in the prior 5 because of it. Couldn’t live without it now…

Grace Potter and The Nocturnals

My biggest musical crush of the year… on more levels than one ;-). If you never heard of Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, you have to visit their site and listen to some of the samples.

They play great music lead by a phenomenal voice with amazing raw emotional intensity. And Grace is adorable to boot… ;- ) Just give them a listen if you like rootsy but intense rock music based on well above average songwriting. Current stand out songs for me include “Apologies” and “Loose Some Time” (next week it may be two other songs…) both of which are slower numbers but the band also excels at the more intense rockers that fill out the rest of the album and fuel their live shows.

The music press is simply gushing about them and her and the band apparently gives amazing concerts. Don’t miss them if they come play in your city. If they ever come play in Montreal, I’ll be first in line to see them… In the meantime read this review of one of their recent shows to whet your appetite.

Missy Higgins

Another young and extremely gifted female songwriter. Higgins is folksier than Potter but just as intense. This Australia native was another XM Radio discovery for me. Not long after hearing her music on XM, my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing her perform on the Australian segment of Live Earth and we were immediately hooked. Great melodies sung with a very noticeable Aussie accent that just adds to the charm of her music. I’m really surprised she does not get more airplay or exposure in North America.

Again, give her music a listen, you’ll be glad you did.

The year in learning

One of the more exciting aspects of working in the Web design industry for me is the need to continually learn new things. I have discovered a few great resources last year that I will now share with you.

Some of those resources or sites that may seem pretty basic to those who’ve been in this business for a while but I like reading about different approaches so I can look at my work from a fresh perspective from time to time. Some of this stuff will be known to you but it may still contain great refreshers.

Less experienced Web designers would be wise to look at some of those resources closely, spend quality time at those sites and absorb some of the wisdom their creators are spreading mostly for free.

Learning keeps your mind young and fresh so, enjoy!

Before & After PDF Subscription

For any designer interested in reading excellent practical articles with great design tips and ideas published on a regular basis, Before & After delivers great value for the money and teaches you how the pros do it and why. Even pros will learn new things and will at the very least be inspired to try new approaches to solve design problems. I know I have.

I’ve actually been a subscriber for a couple years now but it seems the quality of the articles has kept improving throughout the year. If you subscribe you’ll also get access to a number of past issues. Before & After magazine is one of the best of its kind so take a look at the sample PDF’s on the site and you’ll see what a great value it is.

Save The Pixel – The Art of Simple Web Design

I discovered this e-book through the feed of the “Web Design From Scratch” Web site created by Ben Hunt. Every working Web designer should probably read it as it is shock full of great tips and advice for creating efficient Web sites that succeed at creating great user experiences.

The book is very well written in that it does not just explain the principles behind Hunt’s “Save the Pixel” design philosophy but also provides numerous case studies of Web site re-designs. Each case study shows the original site and explains why it wasn’t exactly successful. Then it shows the redesigned version and explains why it works better and why key design decisions were made.

The book would be an excellent resource even for seasoned Web design pros but it should be required reading for all aspiring and new Web designers but especially wannabes who think that what they do is design when they have no real process and just like to make “pretty things” without forethought, planning or direction. Sadly, there are a lot of people like that in our industry vying for the same projects we’re pitching for. This book demonstrates very well why real design is a lot more than mere decoration and why every pixel counts when your site tries to communicate a brand or message as clearly as possible. Best $30 I spent all year…

Start creating better, more effective designs too. Get “Save The Pixel” through my affiliate link here.

Web Design from Scratch

Ben Hunt’s Web site which claims to be “A complete guide to designing web sites that work”.

This site is an extensive resource that contains a lot of free content as well as paid stuff like the “Save the Pixel” book discussed above. One of my great finds of the year.

ideasonideas

A site I discovered through another site’s feed in FeedDemon. IdeasonIdeas touches on a wider variety of subjects than pure design talk. One of the recent discussions centered on the pros and cons of Requests For Proposal or RFPs and started the discussion by stating why they thought they were bad for designers and why.

If you’ve ever had to deal with such issues (and what designers hasn’t) then you know what a pain and a waste of time RFPs can be. Commenters brought up other good points and that is what that blog is about. Great discussions on subjects that matter to communications professionals and brand strategists.

Looking forward to 2008

While I don’t like to play the guessing game of predicting the future, we should probably all look ahead to the future now and plan where we’d want this year to take us. Our future is ours to create and imagine so here’s a few things I’m looking forward to in 2008.

Continuing growth

I’m planting the seeds of a growing business by re-designing my own professional Web site. We might all benefit from re-visiting our own branding and marketing efforts. As a freelancer it is sometimes more difficult because what we are marketing is our own expertise and our brand is ourselves. I’m looking forward to improving my own marketing skills as this will also benefit my clients.

Waiting for Fireworks CS4

Readers of this blog know how important Fireworks is to my design process. I have been a vocal Fireworks evangelist for years now. As I stated above, I think that Fireworks CS3 was solid transitional release under the new care of Adobe. But Fireworks is not without problems… In my next post which will be about the year 2007 in software, I’ll discuss how I now see Fireworks’ place in mine and a typical Web designer’s arsenal and where I would like it to go next.

2008 on Pixelyzed.com

All in all, 2007 was a great year on many levels for me and for the industry but I feel it was a transitional year. I’m really looking forward to what 2008 brings and hopefully, some of the bigger personal changes I have been planning on for a long time will finally happen. Stay tuned!

Regarding the blog, I don’t like to make promises and break them so I will not claim that I will write more often in 2008. All I can promise is that I’ll keep working on building my “voice”. What I try to share with people here are ideas and resources I feel are worthwhile. What this blog and site will never become is a link whore that simply links to other content with little or no new take on it. If that means I post less often than some other bloggers because I don’t spread the latest “meme” without critical thought or commentary then so be it.

I will keep speaking my mind and try to strike conversations on issues that matter to me and which I believe should matter to other design professionals.

Thank you very much to all who follow this site and blog and those who have commented here or sent me e-mail throughout the year. It’s good to know people appreciate what I try to share and care enough to comment on it. See you all in 2008!

post

Got a New Computer!

…and it’s a screamer! I can’t believe I lived with my other one for this long. The new one is so much faster it’s not even funny. I’ll be keeping the old one as a backup so I got a Belkin swicth to use the same keyboard, mouse and monitor with both and plugged them into a router. That way I’ll always have a backup. Now I just have to figure out how to network them together..

If you’re interested, here are the key components I chose to build my new power machine.

First, I went with an AMD Athlon 64  X2 5200+ Dual Core processor. I figure the only reason my old 2001 era 1 GHz machine remained workable for this long (it even runs all the CS3 apps very well except for start time) is the AMD Athlon chip in it. The new Dual core chip is another beast altogheter though. I can’t wait to install CS3 and my other creative and productivity software but mostly I can’t wait to see how my music software will run on it.

To run the Athlon 64 X2 chip, the sales rep at the store that built my machine recommended the ASUS Crosshair motherboard. Hard to get excited about a mobo you’ll say but this one is a thing of beauty. Things have evolved quite a bit in the last 6 years since I was in the market for a new computer. If I had more desk space, I think I’d run that machine on top of it with the side panel removed just to look at the beautiful lights on that board… ;-)

This motherboard is also a technological marvel with an LCD at the back that gives you error messages and codes as well as the status of the PC in human readable form. It’s also a tweaker’s and overclocker’s delight. If you are in the market for a new machine and you thought of getting an AMD processor, take a hard look at that motherboard. The reviews I have read were all overwhelmingly positive. Follow the link above and look at the specs. You’ll want one too. To complement the motherboard and processor, I had them put 4 Gb of Kingston 800MHz DDR2 Ram on it. No more problems running Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Studiometry, Skype and other apps at the same time… And my music software will run so much smoother.

Storage is handled by two Seagate Barracuda SATA 7200 hard drives, the system one is a 250 Gb NCQ and the other is a 500 Gb (media, backup, data, etc).

Next and following a dicussion of my needs with the rep, he recommended the NVidia GeForce 8800 GTS 640 Mb video card. I actually got the EVGA version but it’s the same card. I haven’t run any graphics heavy app or game on the machine yet but the display is absolutely beautiful. I don’t play that many games but I’m a huge fan of two series: the Legacy of Kain / Soul Reaver series but especially the Thief series. THose are the most immersive game "worlds" I have experienced and the Thief 1 and II Looking Glass Studios legacy lives on through a large community of fan mission makers and players. My old machine could handle Thief I and II no problem but I really didn’t have the specs to run the much newer Thief III Deadly Shadows. Not an issue anymore so I ordered Deadly Shadows this morning… ;-)

Last in the major components, I chose the SoundBlaster X-Fi Elite Pro from Creative. If I only did music I would have bought a dedicated music creation sound card like an M-Audio but since I’ll also be gaming and using the PC to watch DVDs for example, I decided on the SoundBlaster. The X-Fi Elite Pro has Digital Analog Converters that are very high quality which rival those in medium range dedicated audio cards, and the break out box is very useful to plug my different instruments into and to control the card itself. I just hope the low latency ASIO driver works well with my music recording and authoring appplication (Sony Acid Pro 6).

But the bottom line is, getting a new powerful computer is so much fun! :-)

post

Enabling Technologies Part II

As promised in my previous entry, the reason I haven’t been posting much here recently is that I have been playing quite a bit of music. I’ve also been learning how to use new toys (hence the "Enabling Technologies" title) that will enable me to record easier and with a much broader sonic palette than I ever could before.

You see, as a guitar player, one of my most frustrating quests was to find the ultimate guitar sound or tone, especially on the electric side. Most guitar players spend a lot of money on equipment and countless hours tweaking it to find that elusive tone. During the last couple of years that I played in my band, I was using a combination of two separate amplifiers and I must say that I had found a sound or sounds I really liked. My sonic palette was still limited to about 3 or 4 distinct "tones" but, in a band context that is quite alright. Well known guitar players like U2’s "The Edge" for example have a signature tone  that they use most of the time and it becomes part of the band’s sound. I can hear 3 notes from a new U2 song and I know instantly who’s playing them….

On the ohter hand, now that I am playing on my own and will be looking at ways to "sell" my forthcoming musical creations I need to cover a much wider array of sonic styles that my ultimate equipment setup just could not have provided… Come in guitar amplifier "modelers" like the Line 6 PODxt. This little red, bean shaped marvel emulates the sounds of not 3 or 4 but up to 72 classic and modern guitar amplifiers. Buying all this equipment would be far beyond the capabilities of all but the richest musicians. Furthermore, I can plug my trusty Fender Stratocaster into it and play through headphones as loud as I want without disturbing anyone and with a sound I would need to crank a real amplifier very loud to get. It is made for direct recording without the need of using expensive microphones on real amplifiers and mastering the studio recording technques required to get a good sounding guitar on tape/disk.

I have been learning to use the POxt for a few months now and I am getting great results out of it. It needs getting used to and spending a good amount of time "tweaking" all the parameters to get the tones you need but it sounds very convincing and is great to record guitar tracks directly into the computer…

Speaking of recording, computer based home or professional studio needs software to record and edit songs and sounds. The recording software industry is a very competitive one where products of all price ranges compete for market share. These applications often called DAWs (for Digital Audio Workstation) range from the very simple to the very sophisticated and everything in between. I have recently upgraded my copy of one of those applications to the latest version: Sony Acid Pro 6.0. I’ve ben spending a lot of time in the last couple weeks familiarizing myself with this new version as I had not used the previous one extensively. I am very impressed with the sophistication and ease of use of this piece of software. Acid’s graphical interface is of a rare elegance and Adobe could learn a few lessons by looking at some of the more popular offerings in the audio recording market for cues. In Acid, everything is easy to get at, reacts as you would expect and just works great out of the box. Sony has really listened to its customers and delivered what they wanted. Now I just need to get all those ideas and bits I’ve recorded on tape in the last few months and build real music with them…

With these two relatively inexpensive new tools, I’ll be able to do just that and have more fun than ever in the process. I’ll post up clips when I have stuff ready. Enabling technologies that’s for sure!

post

Playing Again Part II

There hasn’t been much activity here recently but there is a good reason for that… more in my next entry :-) In an entry I posted back in February (Playing Again…) I told you about my “previous” life as a musician and how I started to play again. I told you about a well known Quebec singer covering a song I wrote nearly 20 years ago. Well, now his album is out and I have heard his version and it really rocks! Here is a (very) small sample of his version of the song (in Windows Media Player format): “Le jour se lève“. I will post an MP3 of my band’s version soon. His version is much heavier than ours was… :-p For anyone interested, his site can be found here. Please note that his site is entirely in French.

post

Playing again…

As some of you know, I’ve been a musician for most of my life (I started playing drums and guitar 30 years ago at age 11). For well over 15 of those 30 years, music had been far more than a hobby for me and my bandmates as we strived to "make it" in the music industry and I dreamed of making a living with my music. We worked very hard at it and achieved many of our goals but it was not to be…

As you are already aware of if you read the about me page, my last band separated over 6 years ago and I’d pretty much stopped playing guitar since then prefering out of frustration and other reasons and chose to devote my time and energies to perfecting the craft of Web design and development instead and that is progressing quite well. But now I’m glad to say that I’ve started playing and writing music again. I’ve got the creative itch again and I’m enjoying playing once more.

This was in large part fueled by some great news I had last year. If you don’t mind me touting my own horn, a song I wrote back in 1987 has been recorded and will be released by Martin Deschamps which is one of Quebec’s best rock artist/singer. His album launch with my song on it (which even more amazingly will be the first single!) is this Wednesday and I’m very excited about it although I have yet to hear his version. But knowing his previous work I’m sure it will be very good.

The song was a very special one for me. The lyrics were first written in English then adapted to French about 5 years later with the help of Isabelle my wife. It was written about one of the most significant parts of my life and it meant a lot to me. I’m very happy to see it resurected so many years later and to see that it still touches people. It’s an amazing feeling…