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How to Get Dark Mode Design Right

Dark themes are everywhere these days. 

As human beings continue to spend more of their time interacting with technology, dark themes provide a more relaxing way to engage with the digital world. More often than not, these themes are easier on the eyes, more attractive, and perfect for the dedicated user

Throughout 2020, countless leading brands have debuted their own version of the dark theme. Google has a solution for your Drive, while Apple and Android have built dark theme performance right into their operating systems. 

If you haven’t learned how to make the most out of dark mode yet, then you could be missing out on an excellent opportunity to differentiate your design skills, and earn more clients going forward. 

Why Dark Mode?

Before we dive too deeply into the possibilities of creating your own dark theme, let’s examine what dark mode is, and why it’s so effective. 

Ultimately, dark themes are created to reduce the amount of luminance emitted by everything from your desktop and laptop, to your smartphone and smartwatch. Dark themes help to improve the visual ergonomics of design, by reducing eye strain, adjusting brightness to suit current lighting conditions, and more. Additionally, many dark mode offerings are also fantastic at conserving battery life. 

Here are some of the main benefits of adding dark themes to your design portfolio

  • Better user experience: A focus on user experience is one of the most important trends of the digital age. You need to be willing to deliver incredible experiences to everyone who visits your website if you want to stand out today. Dark mode reduces everything from eye strain, to battery power consumption. This helps to keep customers on a website for longer.
  • Innovation and cutting edge appeal: Most companies want to prove that they can stay on the cutting edge of their industry. The ability to offer an opt-in dark mode version of a website theme or appearance can help your clients to stand out from the crowd. As the environment becomes more mobile-focused, more companies will be looking for designers that can provide the best mobile experiences. 
  • Support for universal design: Dark mode isn’t just great for people who have light sensitivity at night. This solution could be more comfortable for visually-impaired users who would struggle with eye strain when visiting your websites otherwise. If you want your content to be more inclusive for a wider range of viewers, then learning how to design for dark mode is a good way to start.

Best Practices When Designing for Dark Mode

Designing for dark mode is easier than you’d think. Most of the time, it involves simply thinking about how you can replace some of the brighter, more overwhelming aspects of your site, with something deeper and darker. 

Here are some useful tips that will get you moving in the right direction. 

1. Experiment with Colors

A big issue for a lot of web designers when it comes to developing a dark mode solution is that they get too caught up with things like pure white text against pure black backgrounds. However, this high-contrast option can be a little much after a while. 

It’s often much easier to use a dark grey as your primary surface color, instead of a true black. Additionally, rather than using bright white, think about slightly off-white alternatives that will be warmer to the eye.

Experiment with surfaces and color combinations that are unlikely to cause too much eye strain. Dark grey foundations often offer a wider range of depth, too, because you can demonstrate shadows on grey. 

Additionally, when you are experimenting with colors, remember that saturated colors often vibrate painfully against very dark surfaces, making them harder to read. Desaturating your colors will help to reduce the contrast and make your websites more welcoming. 

Lighter tones in the 200-50 range will have better readability on dark themes. However, you can always experiment with your choices. Google Material Design recommends using a contrast level of around 15:8:1 between your background and text. 

2. Consider the Emotional Impact

Much of the effort involved with dark mode design is figuring out how certain colors work together. It’s easy to get carried away with stark contrasts, particularly when you’re used to working with a white background. However, you need to remember that you’re designing for a user that’s primarily looking for an easier and more subdued browsing experience.

While you’re working, remember to consider the emotional aspect of the design too. The emotion in colors can make or break a buyer’s journey in any environment. However, an often overlooked-aspect of color psychology, is that people perceive shades differently when they’re on a black background

For instance, think of the color green. On a light background, it conveys nature and even financial wealth. However, on a dark background, the same green could come across as something venomous, toxic, or even sickly. It’s important to think about the kind of impressions end users are going to get when they arrive on your site.

3. Give Users the Freedom to Choose

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when you begin designing for dark mode, is thinking that you should focus entirely on your dark themes, and nothing else. This lines you up for a problem if you interact with users who want the best of both worlds. If you’re designing for apps in particular, you’re going to need web pages that can switch naturally between light and dark themes. 

Learning how to implement both a dark mode and a light mode option into the desks you create will help you to reach a wider selection of customers. Remember, you’ll need to test the performance and impact of your designs in both themes, to check that they deliver the same kind of experience, no matter how your user chooses to browse. 

Although dark mode should offer a different experience to end-users, it still needs to feel as though they’re browsing on the same website. That means that you’re going to need to experiment with the most natural combination of light and dark mode options.

4. Remember the Basics

Remember, although the three tips above will help you to get on the right path for dark mode design, you’ll also need to consider the opportunities and limitations of the platforms that you’re designing for. The kind of dark mode experience you can deliver for Google Chrome websites is going to be very different to what you can create for something running on iOS.

Examining the documentation provided by the system that you’re designing for will help you to develop something with a close insight into what’s actually possible. 

Other top tips for dark mode design include:

  • Focus on your content: Make sure that your content stands out on the page, without being too overwhelming. 
  • Test your design: In both light and dark appearances, you need to make sure everything is working as it should be.
  • Adopt vibrancy for your interfaces: Vibrancy helps to improve the contrast between your background and foreground. 
  • Use semantic colors: Semantic colors adapt to the current appearance of a website automatically. Hard-coded color values that don’t adapt can seem more aggressive. 
  • Desktop tinting: Try experiment with things like transparency and filters to give your websites and apps a slightly warmer tint – ideal for late-night browsing
  • Icons: Use individual glyphs and icons for dark and light modes if necessary. 

Ready to Design for Dark Mode?

Preparing your web development and design portfolio for an era addicted to dark mode can be a complex experience. You need to think carefully about how people are going to browse through your websites and apps when they’re searching for something more subtle, and less visually overwhelming than the websites that we’re used to making. 

The most important thing to remember is that everything on your website or application should look just as beautifully tailor-made in dark mode as it does in light mode. Simply adding a dynamic black background when people want to switch settings in an app isn’t enough. You need to go in-depth with your designs and examine how different fonts, colors, and images work together.

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Why AI & Automation Are Actually Friends to Design

Artificial intelligence. Just hearing the phrase has been a trigger for many in the technology world since that creepy Haley Joel Osment film circa 2001. But more recently, artificial intelligence and machine learning strike fear into the hearts of skilled workers for an entirely different reason: job security, or lack thereof.

Smart-home devices, streaming services, self-checkouts, even Google searches are ways that artificial intelligence has seeped into everyday life, exemplifying the abilities of computers and machines to master both simple and complex tasks. In some instances, these technological advancements make our lives easier, but for some people, their proliferation has meant job loss and skill replacement. There’s no wonder that when artificial intelligence starts being mentioned along with web design and site creation, the spidey senses of designers all over the world start tingling.

designers think outside the box, something that AI just can’t do

But let’s get real about what AI and automation really mean for designers for a second. Talented designers with busy schedules should view these advancements as virtual assistants. For some small businesses on a limited budget, the websites that artificial intelligence can pump out might be fine…for a while. However, as businesses grow, change, require updating and customization to adapt to their customer base, the expertise of creative and talented designers will always be needed. Even the best AI that we see today is limited by evaluating, replicating, and revising what already exists. It may be able to mix 1,000 different color schemes into 10 million potential combinations, but great designers think outside the box, something that AI just can’t do.

In fact, rather than being scared of automation, designers ought to embrace automation and artificial intelligence as a way to unleash their creative thinking. Delegate repetitive, straightforward tasks to the right software, and suddenly you have time to bring your best ideas to the table and push the boundaries of your own innovation. 

Where AI has Failed in Design

The ultimate goal of artificial intelligence and automation in design work is a grand vision that has yet to be realised.

Consider the case of The Grid, which began as a crowdfunding campaign in 2014. The “revolutionary” product posed itself as an artificial intelligence solution for building thoughtfully, yet automatically, designed websites in five minutes. Research “Reviews of the Grid” in any search engine and you’ll be met with scathing criticism with only some small praise sprinkled in. Most of the initial users cite underwhelming results, the feeling of being duped by the Grid’s marketing tactics, nonsensical placement of text, and ultimately, the Grid being a complete waste of money for the resulting product. Even at the low cost of $100, compared to hiring a talented designer, most users felt their investment was wasted.

For the AI capabilities that exist now, most small business owners, or those looking to put together a simple website, are better off using drag and drop site builders (Wix, Squarespace, Weebly, etc) that have been around for ages. Even so, there are plenty of businesses still willing to hire designers to take this simple task off their plate due to a lack of technical expertise or lack of time. And let’s be honest, are there even enough talented (keyword here!) designers out there to keep up with the millions of websites created every year, without each one working themselves to death? 

Where Automation Shines for Designers

Fortunately for good designers, it appears for now that the days of artificial intelligence completely taking over their jobs is a fantasy. However, what AI and automation do offer designers is a solid starting point for success, eliminating much of the lower-level grunt work that most designers would rather skip anyway.

Even well-received AI website builders like Firedrop still require a basic eye for design and specialised knowledge to produce truly unique, high-converting, and user-friendly websites. Tools and practices that designers should adopt are the artificial intelligence and automation resources that will help them do their jobs better, faster, and leave them with more time to focus on project elements that AI cannot accomplish on its own.

Bridging the Gap Between Designers and Developers

Well-established brands are likely to already have design systems in place that guide the creation of new elements across their digital profiles whether on social media, various mobile apps, or different sections of a website. But even in large corporations — excepting those who have perfected the process — there’s often a breakdown between a designer’s vision and resulting product from the developers. It stems from the basic difference in how they each approach their work and the limitations of the systems they use.

While component libraries — or even full design systems for that matter — won’t reconcile every question, they provide both developers and designers a source of truth to work from that both parties can understand. Design collaboration tools like Invision and Visme, specifically, keep designers and developers on the same page with automated version saving and code-friendly workflows.  

Understanding the Consumer

I don’t suggest using artificial intelligence to produce content for your site

Digging into and understanding the behaviours and habits of site users is a relatively new component of site design, but offers invaluable insights. Tools like HotJar, Mouseflow, or Smartlook make it simple to see holes or leaks in your conversion funnels, detect which page elements users are interacting with, and which they’re not interested in to refine the look and feel of a page for maximum conversions. Even though these tools provide the data, it still takes a keen eye and understanding of design to implement the right changes to improve site performance.

Site content is another way that artificial intelligence has the potential to improve our understanding of customer behaviour and improve site performance for individual users. I don’t suggest using artificial intelligence to produce content for your site, no matter how much the results have improved. However, static landing pages or a single set of further reading recommendations are unlikely to appeal to the majority of site visitors. Artificial intelligence tools like CliClap and Personyze instantly collect and analyse consumer data to provide dynamic, personalised experiences that drive more leads and encourage conversions. Creative designers will also learn from this data to improve customer experience with other pages or elements throughout the site.

Removing Distracting, Time-Sucking Administrative Tasks

Because “artificial intelligence” has become a term with such negative connotations, we often overlook the simple way that AI actually makes our work lives better and easier. Machine learning in email filtering is a great example of this. Consider a simple interface like a Gmail inbox. We have the option to mark certain senders as spam or as important, and our inbox learns that type of communication is and isn’t useful to the user. Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and more all take cues from the user behaviour of liking a certain song, artists, or genre of music to build customised playlists. There are a myriad of ways that artificial intelligence and its branches of disciplines merge with our everyday lives. 

Some of the most useful automations for business, and especially for designers, are related to the administrative tasks that frequently take time away or distract from more pressing projects. A perfect example of automation that can relieve stress and cut down on mindless work is an email autoresponder. I’ve always found that having time blocked off in my calendar to tackle complex or important projects helps me to focus on the task at hand and be more efficient. In order to more effectively block out my time, closing my email and setting an autoresponder to reply to all incoming emails serves two purposes: 

  1. Lets those trying to get in touch with me know that I only check my email at certain times of the day and that my response may not be immediate — tempering their expectations of when they might hear from me.
  2. Relieves my personal stress of being tethered to my inbox, splitting my focus, and also saves the time of having to initially respond to each email individually. 

This is just one simple way to use automation in your email, although there are many others to explore.

While Zapier isn’t the only workflow automation service on the market, it’s probably the most well known. Workflow automation reduces time spent on mind-numbing, repetitive tasks and helps designers connect apps that might not natively work together. Do you keep a task list in Todoist? Set up a Zap, then create a task in Todoist anytime someone mentions you on Asana or assigns you a task in Trello.

This is especially helpful for freelance designers who work with multiple clients across various project management platforms. The potential for automation to relieve unnecessary mental overhead for designers is nearly limitless.

Don’t be Afraid of AI, Embrace It

The bottom line of this brief overview of artificial intelligence and automation in design is that this emerging technology isn’t something designers should be scared of. In fact, it’s something to welcome with open arms because ultimately it can make our jobs, and our lives, better. Leave the monotonous tasks of collecting and analysing huge amounts of data or administrative minutiae to the machines; they can handle it.

Save the interesting, creative, abstract work for the talented designers who can turn AI recommendations into unique and intuitive digital experiences. Making the relationship between artificial intelligence and design symbiotic will yield the best results for every entity involved: the business, the AI, and yes, even the designer.

 

Featured image via Unsplash.

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Should We Be Designing For Voice?

Voice is one aspect of technology that is getting bigger and bigger, and showing little sign of relenting. In fact, 2019 data revealed that 22% of UK households owned a voice-controlled digital home assistant device such as an Amazon Echo or Google home. This is double the figure recorded in 2017 and it is predicted that over the next five years nearly 50% of all homes will have one. Smart home adoption rates are increasing, and it shows how voice control is something we are all becoming more accustomed to.

With these high figures, does it follow that voice should be something web designers build into sites? Or is it merely a gimmick that will die out and render sites with hardware and complex design issues? You only have to look at the failed introduction of Google glass to see that certain technological advancements don’t always have the outcome that might be expected.

Multiple Voices

One of the first issues with voice is establishing whether you want sites to recognise everyone’s voices, or just those who have registered. If you’re using the site in a crowded room will it pick up on snippets of conversation from others and think these are instructions? Google Home has a feature whereby you have to register your voice with its app to use more personalised features such as the shopping list. Is this the sort of thing websites would need?

Accents

The implementation of voice is complex, not only does it need to understand certain languages (such as English), but all the accents and variations too. With 160 English dialects alone, that is a lot that the technology needs to understand – not including mispronunciations, slang, and colloquialisms. Also, if a site is used all over the world (which many are) how many languages will it need to know?

Privacy Issues

if there are clips of your voice out there on the web…it can easily be imitated

If a website involves a feature such as online shopping or other functions which require sensitive details to be input, this could put people off using voice. Users need to know where this saved data is being stored, how it will be used and if it is secure. In 2018, HMRC had signed up about 6.7 million people to its voice ID service and HSBC said over 10,000 were registering each week. This shows many trust the service, but experts say that if there are clips of your voice out there on the web (such as in a podcast) it can easily be imitated. Bringing with it security and privacy issues.

According to futurologist Dr Ian Pearson, who invented the text message back in 1991, it won’t be long until we can complete a financial transaction with just a few words and a gesture. This can be a time-saver for things such as online shopping, but we need to ensure there are the correct security steps in place.

Users Don’t Talk The Way They Type

When speaking we tend to use shortened and more colloquial language as opposed to when we type. The voice function on a website will need to be able to adapt for this. One example is if you are filling in a form or comment box by voice for a website, you will need to tell it what to punctuate, letting it know where to add a comma, exclamation mark etc.

Website Processes Need to be Simpler

With the web as we use it now, we often browse through pages, reading other snippets of information before clicking through to the page we want. With voice recognition it will cut out these middle steps. For example, if you are looking for a recipe of something specific, you will just say the command “Show me the … recipe” and it will take you straight there. This direct access to what we are looking for could lead to a simplification of websites.

Regular Updates

With websites as they are now, they need updates semi-regularly, depending on how they are built, how complex they are, and what features we have built into them. A voice-based site will need updating regularly, whether to add new words or processes or to keep up with the fast-adapting technology. It might end up being quite a complex process.

Mistrust

While there are more of us now than ever using voice control via tech such as Alexa, Google, and Siri, there is still a level of mistrust over it. It’s still not quite clear where data is being stored, if it is being stored, and how easy it could be to abuse.

Larger Storage and Bandwidth

If a site is built for voice, will it utilise a ready-built plugin or will it have its own software built by developers? Will this feature require a greater amount of storage and bandwidth to cope with it? These are further factors to consider when thinking of the future of implementing voice to websites.

We Still Don’t Know Where It Will Go

Voice technology while working in some respects, is still a bit of a grey area when it comes to future use. Will it be the next big thing as many have predicted, or will it simply die down?

Look at Google Glass – highlighted as the big new technology, they soon died down and were eventually discontinued. Smart watches were another thing. You can see their initial downfall by reading an article published in 2017 about smartwatches – how major smartwatch makers such as Apple and Samsung rushed into the market before the technology was ready and they subsequently failed. Motorola exited the smartwatch market, Pebble and Jawbone shut down and Fitbit sold 2.3 million fewer devices than in their previous quarter. It was perceived as being a fad. However, fast forward to 2020 and more people than ever are wearing and using smartwatches. The smartwatch market was valued at shipment volumes of 47.34 million in 2019 and is expected to reach 117.51 by 2025, reaching a growth of 15.4 over the next five years.

Will voice follow a similar trend?

No More Impulse Buying

People enjoy browsing websites and many businesses rely on user’s impulse buying and ask their websites to be designed to reflect this. With voice taking you directly to the page’s users want to find, will they bypass these potential selling traps and just buy what they want – rather than added extras? Will it end up being a negative for businesses and see users not as satisfied for the experience?

Voiceless Still Matters

You will also have to remember that not all devices might work with voice, or people might be browsing somewhere where voice cannot be used. This means in the design process it needs to work both for voice instruction and manual use. It needs to work just as well for both to ensure the customer journey isn’t affected.

There are many ways voice can affect how we design websites in the upcoming future. It’s important to take note of market trends and usage – seeing how people use voice and thinking of the customer journey. It’s vital we don’t forget the end goals of websites – whether it’s to inform or to sell, the implementation of voice needs to assist this process not make it harder.

 

Featured image via Unsplash.

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Real-Time Stock Data Using Marketplace’s API

In this time of global economic turmoil, it’s more important than it’s ever been that your financial decisions are based on accurate, up-to-date, market information.

In a world where stock price is a key confidence marker, the businesses that attract attention, secure investment, and grow, are the ones that can demonstrate their value in a wider market.

Up to now, displaying accurate market pricing has been prohibitively expensive, needing direct access to a huge dataset, and the code to mine it. So we’re delighted to introduce marketstack, a real-time market data API that’s reliable, simple to integrate with your site or app, is lightning fast, and includes a free-forever plan.

What is marketstack?

marketstack is a REST API that allows you to access stock data for public companies at 72 global exchanges including the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq, the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and the London Stock Exchange.

marketstack delivers real-time market data, accurate to a single minute, ensuring that the information you base your decisions on, and the information you pass on to your customers, is always up to date.

There are more than 125,000 stock tickers, from over 50 different countries; you can query stocks, or over 75 different market indices; intraday market data is included, meaning you can monitor trades that close at the end of the day; you can even retrieve data about time-zones and international currencies.

Why Choose marketstack

marketstack uses cutting-edge technology to deliver market data in an easy-to-integrate JSON format, which is lightweight and incredibly easy to dig into.

Requests are made via a simple HTTP GET call, and all requests are run through bank-quality 256-bit HTTPS encryption. Whatever code stack you’re using, whether it’s PHP, Python, Node, or plain old JavaScript, marketstack provides comprehensive documentation to get your team up to speed in mere minutes.

The highly reliable cloud infrastructure can handle anything from a few dozen requests per year, all the way up to millions of requests per day. Regardless of the scale of your project, marketstack is robust and flexible enough to handle it.

It’s Not Just About Money

marketstack isn’t just about the bulls and bears of markets, in the tech sector specifically, stock price is an indicator of wider business trends and performance.

When Apple became the first US company to reach a $2 trillion valuation, not only was its stock price central to the story, but it indicated a trend in the tech giant’s dominance that went beyond cold hard cash.

When an eccentric billionaire makes outrageous, and ill-judged comments, and tanks his company’s valuation, the fluctuations in stock price are a big part of the story.

Beyond the spin of politicians, the market index of different exchanges is an indication of what analysts with in-depth knowledge really think during an election campaign.

With over 30 years of historical data, marketstack is a history of business, particularly the burgeoning tech sector, and makes that history available with a simple to use API.

marketstack’s Rock Solid API

marketstack’s API is built on top of apilayer technology, one of the most respected, and trusted API providers in the world, with a huge amount of experience delivering data reliably. Millions of API requests can be run through the API hourly, and it still has almost 100% uptime.

Any API is only as good as the data it supplies, and marketstack’s data is supplied by numerous high-authority providers around the globe, resulting in unprecedented accuracy.

As a result, marketstack is trusted by over 30,000 companies — including Microsoft, Amazon, Uber, and Credit Suisse — and 80+ universities.

Getting Started with marketstack

marketstack is entirely free for up to 1000 requests per month, with access to 1 year of historical data, as well as end-of-day data. No credit card is required to get started, and you’ll never be billed. This is the perfect option for simple integrations, or developers working on proof-of-concept builds. What we really like about marketstack is that the free package is genuinely usable. It’s not just a trial version that presses you into upgrading.

For anyone who needs more comprehensive data, packages that include market indices, technical support, and commercial use permissions, start at $9.99 per month, or just $7.99 per month when billed annually.

Head over the marketstack today to claim your free API key, and get started.

 

[– This is a sponsored post on behalf of marketstack –]

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17 Tools I Can’t Design Without

I think of a creative practice as a combination of an approach (a design philosophy) and a series of techniques (craft skills); a good tool facilitates a technique, which in turn supports an approach.

It wasn’t until I sat down to write a list of tools I can’t design without, that I realized just how many tools I rely on as an integral part of my creative process. The danger of tools is that they promote certain techniques, and that bias can alter your approach.

First and foremost a good tool does no harm, it does not dictate, or obstruct your approach. Secondly, a good tool offers flexibility in the techniques you choose. Thirdly a good tool is invisible, it leaves no marks on the end product.

If I’d written this post a year ago the list would have been different, and I hope that in a year it will be different again. These are the tools that I currently find enabling, that have contributed to my craft, and supported my approach.

Affinity Designer

I’ve always used Adobe products. Photoshop and Illustrator were the de facto graphic tools for half my life. I’ve never had an issue with the subscription licensing of Creative Cloud, which I think is proportionate for a professional set of tools. Then, around 18 months ago I got very frustrated with how sluggish Illustrator had become.

I’d written an early review of Affinity Designer, I’d been impressed at the time, so I decided to give it another try expecting the sojourn to last an hour or two before I gravitated back to Illustrator. Running the latest version of Affinity Designer was a revelation, I’ve simply never wanted to switch back.

Why not Sketch? Well, I do occasionally jump into Sketch, especially for pure vector wireframing. I was an early adopter of Sketch, but the reliability issues (long since resolved) poisoned my relationship with it. Why not Figma? Well, Figma’s real strength is in collaboration, something that I get with Sketch, and personally I find some of Figma’s features unintuitive.

Affinity Designer isn‘t perfect. I dislike the color tools, especially the gradient tool, which I find clunky. But it’s the first design app I’ve used in years that syncs closely with my creative process.

Affinity Photo

I don’t do a lot of photo manipulation, so when I switched away from Creative Cloud for design work, I was relaxed about switching from Photoshop to Affinity Photo.

In my experience, Affinity Photo is stronger than Photoshop in some areas, and weaker in others. Affinity Photo’s bitmap scaling is much better than Photoshop’s, largely due to Lanczos 3 sampling.

Affinity Photo also solves a lot of little irritations that Adobe has chosen not to address for legacy or philosophical reasons, such as the toggleable ratio setting when resizing the canvas — I’ve lost track of the hours I’ve spent in Photoshop manually calculating vertical whitespace so that it’s proportionate to the horizontal.

TinyPng

Both Affinity Photo and Photoshop are poor at web format optimizations. Photoshop perhaps has the edge, but its output certainly isn’t acceptable for production.

I run bitmaps through TinyPng, which on average halves the size of the file without any appreciable loss of quality. (It stripped 66% off the images for this post.)

Fontstand

When I started to drift away from Creative Cloud, the one service that delayed me was Adobe Fonts (née Typekit). Not so much for the webfonts — which are faster and more reliable self-hosted — but for the ability to sync desktop fonts into my design apps.

I tried Fontstand when it was first released, and I loved the concept, but was worried about the small library. When I took a second look and discovered the library is now substantial for both workhorses and experimental typefaces, it was an easy decision to switch.

Fontstand is a desktop font rental service. Once you’ve found a typeface you’re interested in, you can activate an hour-long trial, then choose to rent the font for a small fee. You can auto-renew the rental if you need to, and if you rent the font for 12 months it’s yours forever.

If there’s one tool on this list I genuinely could not design without it’s this one. Fontstand makes working with fonts from independent foundries affordable for freelancers, and it’s enriched the typographic palette available to me.

Khroma

Every designer has strengths and weaknesses. Since day one of art school, my weakness has been color. It just doesn’t come naturally to me, and I have to work quite hard at it.

An incredibly helpful tool that I’ve been using for a few months is Khroma. It helps my eyes warm up before approaching color, and helps me find a starting point that I can then refine. Comparing my design work before, and after Khroma, the latter color choices are cleaner, more vibrant, and more interesting.

Atom

A good code editor is essential, and I’ve never found one that I’m completely happy with. For years I’ve flitted back and forth between Brackets, Sublime Text, and BBEdit. I think that probably reflects the changes in the type of coding I’m doing.

For now, I’ve settled on Atom. It’s fast, reliable, and it’s not biased to front or back-end code.

CodeKit

I held out on compilers longer than I should have, using apps like Minify to minify CSS and JavaScript, and the command line to process Sass (see below). Then I found CodeKit and it’s been essential to my workflow ever since.

What I like best about CodeKit is that it’s a GUI. Which means I can change settings while coding, like toggling off the JavaScript linting, without switching mental gears into another language.

MAMP

MAMP is a tool that allows you to run a local server environment, meaning I can run PHP and MySQL without the tedious process of FTPing to a server to test a change. Mac comes with Apache, so this isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s simple to use and works well with both CodeKit and Craft (see below).

There’s a pro version of MAMP, which allows you to switch seamlessly between projects, but it’s heavily geared towards WordPress. I’m still trying to find the time to evaluate Laravel Valet.

Dash

When you first start coding you try and memorize the entire language. It’s very possible to become fluent in the core of a language, but there are always nuances, defaults, and gotchas that you miss. As you grow more experienced, you realize that all professional coders Google the answer at least once per day.

When I got tired of Googling I started using Dash which is a superb app that combines the docs of numerous different languages into a searchable window. I use it daily for everything from SVG to Twig.

LambdaTest

It doesn’t really matter what you’re building, even the indy-web needs to be tested. Ideally you’ll test on real devices, but if you can’t afford a device library — and who but the largest agencies can — you need a live testing solution.

There are a few upstarts, but your choice is basically between BrowserStack and LambdaTest. I went for LambdaTest because I prefer the style of the UI, but that’s entirely subjective. If you’re not sure, toss a coin, you’ll get the same results with both.

Sass

I can’t write CSS without Sass — and I mean that literally. If I try and write vanilla CSS I guarantee I’ll nest something with @at-root and it will throw an error.

Craft CMS

Stating any preference for a CMS online that is not WordPress inevitably invites impassioned protests from developers whose career is built on the WordPress platform. So let me say preface this by saying: if WordPress works for you, and more importantly for your clients, then more power to you; I think it’s a dog.

Shopping around for a CMS is challenging, and I’ve gone through the process several times. A good CMS needs to be in sync with your mindset, and it needs to be appropriate for your clients — all of them, because unless you’re in a large agency with multiple coders, you need to commit to a single solution in order to master it.

I have looked and looked, and finally settled on Craft CMS. Craft makes it easy to build and maintain complex, high-performance sites. It has a shallow learning curve that grows exponentially steeper, making it easy to get started with plenty of room to grow.

Vue.js

Way back when Flash went kaput I switched to jQuery, and that was a really easy route into JavaScript — ignore the people who tell you to master the core language first, do whatever it takes to start using a language, that’s how you learn. But jQuery is heavy, and I found I needed it less and less.

These days 90% of the JavaScript I write is progressive enhancements in vanilla JavaScript to keep the dependencies low. Occasionally I encounter a job that requires complex state management, and then I fall back on Vue.js. JavaScript developers are as partisan as CMS aficionados, so let’s just say I favor Vue.js because it’s not controlled by a mega-corp and leave it at that.

Ulysses

As editor at WDD, I cannot emphasize enough that the right way to write copy for the web is markdown.

Markdown is faster to write so you don’t lose the thread of your thought process, and it doesn’t impose formatting so you can easily migrate to a CMS. If you’ve ever spent 20 minutes stripping the class, id, and style tags out of a file created in Word, Pages, or (by far the worst offender) Google Docs, then you don’t need to be sold on this point.

There are a few markdown-based writing apps available, I tested half a dozen, and the one I settled on was Ulysses. I like its distraction-free mode, I love its clean exports. Everything I write, I write in Ulysses.

Screenshot Plus

Much like markdown editors, there’s no shortage of screenshot apps. My current favorite is Screenshot Plus.

Screenshot Plus has one feature that makes it standout for me, and that is its Workflows. It sounds like a small problem, but when you’re taking screenshots of a dozen sites, the extra clicks to save, switch to your editor, and open the file are laborious. I have several workflows setup in Screenshot Plus that allow me to take a screenshot, save it to a specified folder on my local machine, and then open it in Affinity Photo, all with a single click.

Spark

I get a lot of email, a lot. At one point the influx was so bad I was using multiple email apps to segment it. Yes, I use Slack daily, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for email.

I‘ve been using Spark for around six months and it’s radically sped up my workflow. I’m a big fan of the smart inbox that allows me to compartmentalize email like newsletters, and email that warrants a reply. I like that I can switch to a chronological list if I’m looking for something specific. I love the ability to pin, or snooze messages, which helps me triage my inbox.

Todoist

I’m one of those people who can’t make it through the day without being organized. I need lists and sublists, and I need something native that opens automatically when I boot my Mac, and something that sits on the home screen of my Android.

There are as many to-do apps as there are things to do. When I’m working in a team I’ll use whichever task-tracking system it prefers. But by choice I always use Todoist thanks to its balance of simplicity and power. At this point it’s something of a meta-tool, and the app I open first every morning.

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The Designer’s Guide to Letter-Spacing

Most of the information we consume happens through reading, so it makes a lot of sense to pay attention to the words when designing. There are many aspects to typography, but one of the things that helped improve the quality of my design was letter-spacing.

Letter-spacing is about adding and removing space between letters. Some people confuse it with kerning, but these two are different; letter-spacing affects the whole line of text, whereas kerning adjusts the space between two individual letters at the time. Kerning is best left to type designers, besides which, unlike letter-spacing there is currently no way to control kerning in CSS.

I believe that practice and a lot of observation will change the way you treat letter-spacing in your work as well.

The Purpose of Letter-Spacing

The main purpose of letter-spacing is to improve the legibility and readability of the text. Words act differently depending on their size, color, and the background they are on. By adjusting letter-spacing to the environment you are working with you will help readers consume your information faster, and more efficiently. The fun part is that they won’t even notice it — that’s the whole point of the job.

Bear in mind that typographers think about letter-spacing and kerning when designing a typeface. It means you don’t have to apply it to all your text, but in order to have an understanding when it’s necessary, you should know some basic principles, and use good typefaces.

How Letter-Spacing Affects Legibility and Readability

The legibility and readability of your text depend on things like line-height, paragraph length, font size, typeface choice, letter-spacing, and much more. Regarding letter-spacing, if you are just getting into typography, the best thing you can do is not overuse it. What I mean by that is simply don’t make the distance between letters too big or too small; even if you think it looks good, people will struggle reading it, and that will ruin their experience.

Letter-Spacing Capital Letters

Capital letters are designed with the intention that they will appear at the beginning of a sentence or proper noun, in combination with lowercase letters. When capital letters are next to each other, the space between them is too tight. So in order to achieve better readability, space needs to be increased. This applies to both large and small font sizes.

Letter-Spacing Headlines

If you are using well designed fonts, you can be sure that they are calibrated well, and you won’t need to make any major adjustments to them. However, the problem with headlines is that at larger scales the space between letters looks unbalanced. It can be fixed by increasing or decreasing the letter-spacing value.

There are no strict rules for letter-spacing — there are a lot of typefaces and all of them require an individual approach — but if you look at how big companies like Google and Apple treat their typefaces, you can find a lot of valuable information there.

Let’s take a look at the “Roboto” and “San Francisco” typefaces (the first one is used in Material Design and the second one in Apple’s ecosystem). Headlines from 20 to 48 pixels have either a positive letter-spacing value or none. If the font size is bigger, letter-spacing becomes negative. These exact numbers are not going to work that well for other typefaces, but after trying different approaches I can state that it’s a common pattern.

I’ve tested several guidelines for letter-spacing and the one that was published by Bazen Agency works for a lot of popular typefaces. It will be a good starting point for you, but you can always apply additional adjustments:

  • H1 — 96px — -1.5%
  • H2 — 60px — -0.5%
  • H3 — 48px — 0%
  • H4 — 34px — 0.25%
  • H5 — 24px — 0%
  • H6 — 20px — 0.15%
  • Subtitle — 16px — 0.15%

If you happen to design a lot of apps or you’re planning to do that, one thing that helps me is using the default Material Design and Apple guidelines for their typefaces. They are well balanced and it saves a lot of time.

Letter-Spacing Body Text

If you ever read anything about letter-spacing, you’ve probably have seen this popular wisdom from typographer Frederic Goudy: “Anyone who would letter-space lowercase would steal sheep”. (There’s an argument that he was only referring to blackletter fonts.) Some designers took it as a hard rule and now never adjust the letter-spacing of lowercase text.

Based on my practice and by looking at the work of designers I can’t agree with Goudy, because sometimes small changes can make a big difference in how your text performs. Let’s take, for example, condensed fonts. At a small size, the letters are too close to each other, which leads to poor legibility. By increasing letter-spacing by 1.5% you will see that the text is now easier to read.

If we look at my previous example, in the guidelines for “Roboto” and “San Francisco” typefaces, letter-spacing is applied to body text; even though San Francisco has a dedicated “SF Pro Display” for headlines and “SF Pro Text” for body text, letter-spacing is still used to refine them.

There are a lot of different typefaces and a single rule doesn’t apply to all of them. Experiment with letter-spacing and do what seems right to you. There are some simple guidelines that will lead you in the right direction, especially when working with body text:

Keep in Mind Line-Height

If you have a line-height greater than 120%, most likely negative letter-spacing will lead to an unbalanced look to the paragraph. To refine it you would need to either keep it at 0% or only slightly increase it.

Light Text on Dark Background

On a dark background, white text looks overexposed and therefore letters appear too tight. To make it more legible, I would suggest you increasing letter-spacing a small amount.

General Values for Body Text

You can use the following guidelines for body text, which I have tested with several typefaces:

  • Body 1 — 16px — 0.5%
  • Body 2 — 14px — 0.25%

Letter-Spacing Captions

Unlike headlines and body text, smaller font sizes don’t have many variations in letter-spacing. It’s a common practice when a font size is lower than 13px to increase the space between letters to make it legible. But there are always exceptions (“SF Pro Text” guidelines suggest using positive letter-spacing only when a font size is 11px or below). Make sure you experiment with settings.

You can use the following values as a starting point and then edit them to what seems right to the typeface of your choice:

  • Caption — 12px — 0.5%
  • Overline — 10px — 1.5%

Final Tip

One of the things that helped me improve my skills in typography was looking at other designers and especially type foundries. By decoding their work you might notice some nuances of how they treat typography and it will help you in future projects.

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In Memory of Flash: 1996-2020

We are gathered here today….

Today I write in memory of Adobe Flash (née Macromedia), something that a bunch of people are actually too young to remember. I write this with love, longing, and a palpable sense of relief that it’s all over. I have come to praise Flash, to curse it, and finally to bury it.

We’ve been hearing about the death of Flash for a long time. We know it’s coming. December 2020 has been announced as the official timeframe for removal, but let’s be real about this: it’s dead. It’s super-dead. It’s people-are-selling-Flash-game-archives-on-Steam dead.

That last bit actually makes me happy, because Flash games were a huge part of my childhood, and the archives must be preserved. Before I’d ever heard of video cards, frames per second, and “git gud”, I was whiling away many an hour on disney.com, cartoonnetwork.com, MiniClip, Kongregate, and other sites, looking for games.

I think we’ve established in my previous work that even as a missionary kid, I did not have a social life.

The Internet itself gave me a way to reach out and see beyond my house, my city, and my world, and it was wonderful. Flash was a part of that era when the Internet felt new, fresh, and loaded with potential. Flash never sent anyone abuse, or death threats. Flash was for silly animations, and games that my parent’s computer could just barely handle, after half an hour of downloading.

I even built my first animated navigation menus in Flash, because I didn’t know any better. At all. But those menus looked exactly like the ones I’d designed in Photoshop, so that’s what mattered to me, young as I was.

That was a part of Flash’s charm, really.

What Flash Got Right

Flash Brought Online Multimedia into the Mainstream

Funny story, JavaScript was only about a year old when Flash was released. While HTML5 and JS are the de-facto technologies for getting things done now, Flash was, for many, the better option at launch. JS had inconsistent support across browsers, and didn’t come with a handy application that would let you draw and animate whatever you wanted.

It was (in part) Flash that opened up a world of online business possibilities, that made people realize the Internet had potential rivalling that of television. It brought a wave of financial and social investment that wouldn’t be seen again until the advent of mainstream social networks like MySpace.

The Internet was already big business, but Flash design became an industry unto itself.

Flash Was Responsive

Yeah, Flash websites could be reliably responsive (and still fancy!) before purely HTML-based sites pulled it off. Of course, it was called by other names back then, names like “Liquid Design”, or “Flex Design”. But you could reliably build a website in Flash, and you knew it would look good on everything from 800×600 monitors, to the devastatingly huge 1024×768 screens.

You know, before those darned kids with their “wide screens” took over. Even then, Flash still looked good, even if a bunch of people suddenly had to stop making their sites with a square-ish aspect ratio.

Flash Was Browser-Agnostic

On top of being pseudo-responsive, the plugin-based Flash player was almost guaranteed to work the same in every major browser. Back in a time when Netscape and Internet Explorer didn’t have anything that remotely resembled feature parity, the ability to guarantee a consistent website experience was to be treasured. When FireFox and Chrome came out, with IE lagging further behind, that didn’t change.

While the CSS Working Group and others fought long and hard for the web to become something usable, Flash skated by on its sheer convenience. If your site was built in Flash, you didn’t have to care which browsers supported the <marquee> tag, or whatever other ill-conceived gimmick was new and trendy.

Flash Popularized Streaming Video

Remember when YouTube had a Flash-based video player? Long before YouTube, pretty much every site with video was using Flash to play videos online. It started with some sites I probably shouldn’t mention around the kids, and then everyone was doing it.

Some of my fondest memories are of watching cartoon clips as a teenager. I’d never gotten to watch Gargoyles or Batman: The Animated Series as a young kid, those experience came via the Internet, and yes… Flash. Flash video players brought me Avatar: The Last Airbender, which never ever had a live action adaptation.

Anyway, my point: Flash made online video streaming happen. If you’ve ever loved a Netflix or Prime original show (bring back The Tick!), you can thank Macromedia.

What Flash Got Wrong

Obviously, not everything was rosy and golden. If it was, we’d have never moved on to bigger, better things. Flash had problems that ultimately killed it, giving me the chance, nay, the responsibility of eulogizing one of the Internet’s most important formative technologies.

Firstly, it was buggy and insecure: This is not necessarily a deal-breaker in the tech world, and Microsoft is doing just fine, thank you. Still, as Flash matured and the code-base expanded, the bugs became more pronounced. The fact that it was prone to myriad security issues made it a hard sell to any company that wanted to make money.

Which is, you know, all of them.

Secondly, it was SEO-unfriendly: Here was a more serious problem, sales-wise. While we’re mostly past the era when everyone and their dog was running a shady SEO company, search engines are still the lifeblood of most online businesses. Having a site that Google can’t index is just a no-go. By the time Google had managed to index SWF files, it was already too late.

Thirdly, its performance steadily got worse: With an expanding set of features and code, the Flash plugin just took more and more resources to run. Pair it with Chrome during that browser’s worst RAM-devouring days, and you have a problem.

Then, while desktops were getting more and more powerful just (I assume) to keep up with Flash, Apple went and introduced the iPhone. Flash. Sucked. On. Mobile. Even the vendors that went out of their way to include a Flash implementation on their smartphones almost never did it well.

It was so much of a hassle that when Apple officially dropped Flash support, the entire world said, “Okay, yeah, that’s fair.”

Side note: Flash always sucked on Linux. I’m just saying.

Ashes to Ashes…

Flash was, for its time, a good thing for the Internet as a whole. We’ve outgrown it now, but it would be reckless of us to ignore the good things it brought to the world. Like the creativity of a million amateur animators, and especially that one cartoon called “End of Ze World”.

Goodbye Flash, you sucked. And you were great. Rest in peace. Rest in pieces. Good riddance. I’ll miss you.

 

 

Featured image via Fabio Ballasina and Daniel Korpai.

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3 Essential Design Trends, July 2020

The biggest trend we’re talking about this month started at WWDC as Apple provided a glimpse of what’s coming next for their operating systems. This time around there’s a distinct design element. Did you catch it?

Here’s what’s trending in design this month.

1. Text Highlights and Underlines

There’s always been an unwritten rule in website design that text uses more plain styles. Bold is acceptable, italics are OK from time to time, but underlining is seldom used.

This design trend bucks that concept with text elements that use highlighter or underline elements to emphasize key words. And it works rather nicely.

What it takes to make this work is plenty of contrast and a design style that fits with underline or highlighted elements.

This design trend works thanks to clear intention. The words are obviously important to the overall meaning of the design or what visitors should take away from the content.

Pepper It uses a nifty underline that the letters seem to rest inside of to highlight a key phrase. The shape and color also mimic that of the larger button below, helping the eyes move from one element to the next. It’s an effective use of an underline (or maybe you could call it a highlight) effect in conjunction with brand colors.

Zappos Kids uses a fun highlight in a colorful scheme to highlight a key text element. It almost looks like a button and helps website visitors understand that the entire hero image area is clickable. The highlight serves to make the text more readable and the interactive element more functional.

Zeus Jones uses a variety of text treatments on the homepage, but arguable the underline is most noticeable, likely because it is the most unfamiliar in the context of website design.

2. Distinct Geometry

Geometric shapes in website design have popped up as trending elements in a variety of forms. This iteration is pretty simple: Use of distinct geometry as part of the overall aesthetic.

Geometry might pair with illustrations, photos, text, or in the background or foreground. What’s great about shapes is that they are versatile and work with a lot of other design patterns.

What can be the most challenging about shapes and design is that distinct geometry requires some space and thought. Just tossing a few triangles or rectangles in a design without reason can look rather strange.

So how can you add geometric shapes to a design so that they look intentional? These examples do it well (and in three different ways).

Rui Ma uses square and rectangular containers in a modular grid with portfolio projects inside each. This is one of the most common and applicable uses of geometry – as a container element. What makes it stand out is the circle, smiley wheel (also a geometric shape) that never leaves the center of the screen. The black background for the grid is also a nice contrast element for content blocks.

Thompson Stenning uses shapes in the background and with illustrations to create a stunning homepage visual. It’s big and bold and has just enough going on that you want to look at it and figure out the scene. Maybe what’s most intriguing about the visual concept is that it uses lots of geometric shapes – rectangles, squares, triangles, ad circles – whereas most projects pick one shape to focus on.

Romain Penchenat uses three-dimensional style angles to draw you into the portfolio website. They use a simple animation that “floats” on the homepage and follows the scroll with other geometric elements.

3. Shadow and Gradient Icons

Did you notice all the gradients and subtle shadows in icons in the images previewing iOS 14 or were you just looking at other changes (such as widgets) on the iPhone screen?

We’ve been seeing more designers incorporating more shadows and depth into icons for a while, but this move by a major player in design will push it to the forefront fast. Each of the icons moves from a flat style to one with a background gradient color as well as more shadows within icon elements for depth.

Don’t worry, the design still looks very much like Apple, but is a little more reminiscent of the skeuomorphism style icons from earlier versions of iOS.

It’s nice that the color and shadow elements are contained within each icon. This creates more visual interest and depth for each element without getting cluttered or junky. The gradients are also super simple, using a darker version of the main color in a monotone element.

It’s an iconography style that others are already using. DG Studio has a collection of icons on its homepage with subtle gradients and shadowing in the designs. Again, what’s nice about this trend is that it adds depth to visuals without tricks that get in the way of visual comprehension.

Guillaume Gouessan uses gradients in image icons in much the same way as the previous examples but with a little more color variation. Here, you can see what the gradient looks like when using a color change that’s not super drastic, but more dramatic than a monotone option. You can find some use of the more monotone gradient on his site below the scroll in the large desk image. (It’s definitely worth a few clicks to check it out.)

Love it or hate it, gradients and shadows seem to be here to stay for a while.

Conclusion

How often do you find yourself looking to major brands and companies for design inspiration? While a lot of web design trends start as experiments with smaller sites, the big players can really shape what gets popular (or not).

The example of Apple moving to icons with more shadows and gradients is a prime example. We’ve been seeing more of these elements creeping in for a while, but this style is about to get very big again.

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