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The Real Pixelyzed 3.0 is Live (and Back with Headway)

Sometime last week I finally finished the “real” pixelyzed 3.0 redesign and switched the theme of the site back to Headway. I’m very happy to be back to Headway and will talk about it more in future posts as I truly think it’s the best WordPress theme framework for professionals doing client sites on WordPress.

The 3.0 design will probably be tweaked and evolve with time but I do not consider it transitional as I’d done with all the versions between it and the original pixelyzed 1.0 design (the one with the “pixels” grid). It is purposefully simple and I will help me concentrate on creating content.Continue Reading

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Is Using WordPress Themes Frameworks Cheating at Web Design?

I read a very interesting article over the weekend titled “Are WordPress Themes Cheating in Web Design?” by James Dalman. That article itself was inspired by an older one titled “Confessions of a Template Whore” by Sabrina Dent which is equally interesting.

The point of this post is not to rehash the same ideas as these two articles. I agree with both authors that, using pre-designed themes is quite OK in many cases, especially for non-designers who want to get blogs and even simple sites up quickly and cheaply and still get at least a professional “look”, even if we all know that design goes a lot deeper than mere decoration and surface skinning.

A good looking and functional free theme like the one I used when I moved this site to WordPress won’t win anyone any originality awards, but it will get the job done for a lot of people and won’t turn away visitors because the site looks like crap or is completely unusable.

But beyond pre-made themes that you just plug into a site and tweak a little, there is whole other category of themes called “Premium Themes” or theme frameworks. This site’s evolving design is now based on one called Thesis and I’ll be redoing my company blog as well as Isabelle’s entire Web site using another called Headway. I talked about Thesis and theme frameworks in this recent post.

Basically, what theme frameworks do is enable you to easily (or relatively easily)  “skin” your blog or site using your own design with little or no coding… and that is what I wanted to touch on here.

A major Shift

For me, starting to use WordPress has been a mind shift in itself, for a few reasons. But I always figured I would at least eventually build my own theme for it… from scratch… and I figured I would build blogs with it and little else. But that’s until I discovered the true power of the platform. The mind shift was complete once I discovered Thesis and Headway and the world of theme frameworks… and my imagination started racing!

As many of you know, I have been designing and building Web sites for a long time now, so I know how to code and do so in an efficient manner. I’ve never used code exported from Fireworks (the application I design all of my sites with) because it never was good enough for me. Without calling myself a purist, I’ve always taken pride in the quality of my HTML and CSS and I’ve worked hard at keeping up with current techniques. So you can imagine my reluctance to let go of most of my control using WordPress and a theme framework to build not only a blog, but entire Web sites!

But I plan to do just that for not only Isabelle’s site, but my biggest Web site project to date if I get it (I’m sending my bid in on Friday) as well as any suitable future projects.

What changed my mind? Quite frankly, I’m tired of the tedium and repetition. Using WordPress and a good theme framework means that a lot of a site’s infrastructure is already done for me, and done solidly too. Like James Dalman said in his article:

  • It takes a lot of energy and time to create something from nothing,
  • freelancers are limited by time,
  • and a business’ primary goal (freelance or otherwise) is to be profitable

These are just as applicable to coding a site as they are to designing it. If I can get more projects done faster it will mean a better cash flow for me and significant savings for my clients. Plus it will mean I will concentrate more on the parts I enjoy (strategy, design, UX) and less on the tedium of coding the same kind of functionality again and again.

This is not for every project but when it is applicable, it will be a win-win for everyone IMO.

What do you think?

Update – November 16th, 2012:
Just a short not to say that, since I published this post, I’ve changed my mind and stopped recommending Thesis. I would actually recommend staying away from it for several reasons I may touch upon in a future post. I also have big reservations about Headway now based on several incidents I had with it like minor updates breaking sites in the 3.x version and 2.x sites breaking completely for no reason I could find. I personally have lost my trust in Headway but still think the product is good for many people as it’s a very flexible framework and my experience is probably not typical. But these days I stick with either iThemes Builder mostly or WooThemes Canvas for some projects (including this site) because I believe they are better engineered and stick to WordPress standards better and I outlined some of the reasons I think this is very important here. I have more sites on Builder than Headway now and no updates have ever broken a layout and none of my Builder sites have ever lost their formatting for no reason overnight like what happened on my business site which was on Headway 2.0.13 until recently when I put it on Canvas.

Update – November 11th, 2013:
Just an additional note that, as of yesterday, this site now runs on the Genesis Framework which is becoming my primary WordPress theme framework. Some of the reasons are outlined in the post for the launch of v5.0 of this site but I will publish a complete review in the near future. I will also continue to use iThemes Builder and WooThemes Canvas on existing and probably future client projects as I still belive in both the products and the companies behind theme but, at this time, I feel that Genesis meets my needs better as it outputs the cleanest, most efficient HTML and CSS code of any WordPress theme framework I’ve used so far.

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My Journey to WordPress – New Design Up!

As I already explained previously, on April 5th (2010), I migrated pixelyzed.com from another blogging platform to WordPress. Last night I changed from the free theme I’d been using to my own new design which I integrated into WordPress using the Thesis theme (more about Thesis below).Continue Reading

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My Top 10 Web Design Tools

I had already started working on a blog post with my top 10 most useful Web design tools but, like many other things these days, I had continually postponed finishing it in favor of “more important things”. Like client work… ;-)

But I saw a post today on the Visualrinse blog that tackled the same topic so it prompted me to finish mine.

As mentioned in the above blog post, we all have our own favorite working methods, tricks and tools for completing projects and, as I have already mentioned here before, I have really tried to refine my process in the last year or so and find the tools that really help me get my work done, especially since I am a one man shop and need to tackle both the design and development aspects of my projects as well as managing them and my clients. Now that I am freelancing full time, I have really started to develop a process that works for me. So here are the tools I could not live without in my Web design and development work.

 

  1. Mindjet MindManager Pro / JCV Gantt Pro. I stated using MindManager in the summer of 2007 and it has quickly become one of my most useful tools. I use it for several things like brainstorming ideas, creating projetc management documents like a projet’s creative brief, work breadown structure or tasks, site maps and more. Each project gets a “dashboard” map that links to all the other project related maps, documents or folders. From the tasks map I move to the JCV Gantt Pro addin to create the project schedule and determine the cost of the project. MindManager is the best “knowledge repository” application I’ve ever tried and I now wonder what I did without it before I found it.
  2. Axure RP Pro. Axure is the most recent addition to my toolset. It takes off where MindManager leaves off for me. As great as MindManager is for my own internal processes I realized it did not create great deliverables for clients. Axure is the best tool I found to create site maps and flow charts but its main purpose is wireframes, functional interactive prototypes and documentation and it really excels at it. I’m working on a appointment/calendar app for a current site project and prototyping it in Axure will save me a lot of coding time later. There’s nothing like showing a working, clickable and interactive version of a site feature to a client, even if it is fake, to work out the kinks and nail down expectations.
  3. Adobe Fireworks. The mainstay in my toolset for the last 10 years and my most used app along with Dreamweaver. I really could not do my job without Fireworks. It completely replaced Photoshop for me for Web design and layout work over 10 years ago and I have never looked back. Its hybrid raster/vector workflow as well as Web centric focus make it the most efficient design app I have ever used. It’s like Photoshop/Illustrator and InDesign all rolled up into one killer app but just for the Web. CS4 will be released soon and it really will be the best version ever.
  4. Adobe Dreamweaver. Unlike Fireworks which I pretty much adopted immediately after trying version 2.0, it took me a long time to warm up to Dreamweaver. I had been using HomeSite which was a great code editor for a long time but I had to use a separate FTP application to upload sites and was looking for ways to automate some of the repetitive work. Around the release of Dreamweaver 4 but especially the next one, Dreamweaver MX (6.0), the application had evolved in such a way that it basically replaced HomeSite for me. Now it is a full fledged Web authoring environment I couldn’t live without anymore. It has the right balance of code centric features, visual editing and a lot of other features around those that just make it a true powerhouse. The new CS4 version which is in public beta right now adds very cool new features that are already making my life easier.
  5. ColdFusion. I am more of a designer and front end developer than a backend developer but I still have to wear that hat. I have tried Perl and used ASP in the past and although it was OK it got tedious for me after a while. I also tried PHP as it’s very popular but I really don’t like it at all for some reason. It really didn’t click with me and I strongly dislike the syntax. When I started working with ColdFusion it’s like a light bulb was turned on for me. The syntax made sense and it could do more in fewer lines of code than ASP (and most other server-side scripting languages) ever could. In the last few years, ColdFusion has kept evolving into one of the most powerful server-side development solutions around with many buit-in features you need plugins for in other platforms. It really rocks my world and has empowered me to build better Web sites.
  6. Web Developer Toolbar. Although Firefox is not my main browser (Opera is… and Google Chrome is gainning ground), no Web designer/developer should be without this utility.
  7. Firebug. Another amazing Firefox extension that probably needs no introduction. The Inspect functionality alone makes this an absolute must-have. If you’re not sure what CSS rule affect a misbehaving element, you’ll find it with Firebug’s Inspect. Not far behind is Opera’s new Dragonfly feature which is still in alpha. Similar to Firebug but built right into Opera 9.5+.
  8. Genopal. Going back to designer tools, Genopal is one of those rare finds you wonder how you did without before discovering it. Genopal is a small application used to create color schemes. Nothing earth shattering here but, it does it in a very unique way that I had never seen before. This is the most intuitive color tool I have ever used and I urge anyone struggling with creating good color schemes to try it. I use the desktop Pro version but there’s also an online version on the site. This one is a true little gem.
  9. Studiometry. What would I do without this amazing application? Studiometry is the administrative center of my world. Projects, clients details, contacts, timers, invoicing, reports and more, Studiometry tracks every detail of my professional work and helps me keep organized.
  10. jQuery. This “little” JavaScript framework has rocked my world. Like ColdFusion but on the front end, it has empowered me to create complex interactivity faster and easier than I ever could before. I have tried others but jQuery just clicked for me and I keep being amazed at what I can accomplish with it.

 

So the above are my own must-haves. The list is not complete though so here’s a few honorable mentions for other applications that are central to my work :

One is Outlook 2007 for keeping up with not only email but client contacts, calendar and categorized tasks lists  (following the GTD principles). It’s the first app I launch in the morning and the last one I ckeck at night.

Another is FeedDemon, the incredible RSS feeds aggregator from Nick Bradbury and NewsGator. In our field, fighting information overload has become a real issue, at least it has for me. FeedDemon helps me keep informed by following the myriad of sites I am interested in but also through keyword feeds that gather information about specific topics I’m interested in.

Lastly, I need to mention Twitter and the TweetDeck client. I’ve been a very late Twitter adopter as I didn’t “see” the use and thought it would be a waste of time. But now that I work on my own full time, I enjoy the connection to the people I follow. Like FeedDemon, TweetDeck enables me to separate my Twitter “stream” into groups. But furthermore, it enables me to keep watch on particular topics in the “public stream” by letting me add colomns based on specific keyword searches. It took me a long time to get on Twitter but now, TweetDeck is always running on my laptop while I work on my main machine.

Well that’s it for me at this time. What are your own preferred tools that you just cannot live without?

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Font Management Woes

For the last few weeks, I’ve been having a lot of issues with my font management software. For a Web or graphic designer, a good font management program is very important so I’ve been scrambling to find solutions.

I had been using Extensis Suitcase for a long time but the Windows version doesn’t have a proper search feature and that is something that can really help when you are looking for fonts for a project. That’s why I had been experimenting with other apps. One of those apps was Proxima Software’s FontExpert. But the thing is, both have pros and cons and I basically used one for a while and the other for a while then back again. Want examples of things one does well while the other doesn’t? here it goes:

Suitcase Pros:

  • It is a mature app with a polish that is hard to beat
  • It has a very streamlined and easy to use UI
  • It comes with automatic font activation plugins for both Illustrator and InDesign and, coupled with is FontSense technology, they work very well.

Suitcase Cons:

  • It lacks a search feature in the Windows version
  • It is harder on resources than FontExpert as it uses a resident service that start with every Windows boot.
  • It’s activation process depends on the infamous “Bonjour Service” (more on that later).

FontExpert Pros

  • It has a very extensisve feature set that includes tagging and categorizing fonts and searching them.
  • It offers access to detailed information for each font.
  • It is very light on resources

FontExpert Cons

  • Its interface can be confusing, especially its implementation of Groups and Worklists and what each is used for. Suitcase is a lot easier to deal with in that regard.
  • Documentation is lacking
  • It has an auto activation plugin only for InDesign and the CS3 version is flaky. It was preventing InDesign to load for me so I had to uninstall the plugin.

Up to a few weeks ago, I was using Suitcase because, even without search, its operation was more trouble free and it really worked well with InDesign and Illustrator when I openend a filed that used fonts that were uninstalled. But one day, it stopped loading on Windows startup or manually. After a bit of detective work I realized that the issue was tied to the “Bonjour Service“. No matter what I try, I cannot get that stupid service to start and Suitcase depends on it being started to start itself.

I tried downloading the latest version of Bonjour from Apple but that won’t start either. I have made no change purposefuly to my machine that could explain this. Maybe some kind of Windows update is preventing Bonjour to start but I have no idea why and no amount of Googling has given me a solution. Extensis are no help.

I had no choice but to uninstall Suitcase and install FontExpert. But I started having problems with that too. Fonts would not display correctly within the app nor within applications using them even if they were activated. They defaulted to a basic sans-serif that looked nothing like the typeface I was using. So I was screwed and I needed to find another font management application. I’m starting a new project these days and it includes the creation of a logo  so I need to look at a lot of fonts…

After a bit of research I found Hi-Logic MainType. It looks a bit like FontExpert but more streamlined and its Group features is directly linked to folders on your machine which is a lot closer to how Suitcase worked. All fonts display correctly in it and it has a “filter” feature that helps find fonts based on several criteria and it seems to work quite well. I’ll see how it works for me over time.

In the meantime, if any of you that read this blog have experienced problems with the Bonjour Service failing to start or have heard of a solution to that problem then please, post a comment here. Suitcase is not the only app depending on it and I would love to fix this issue on this machine.