November 23, 2010
My friend Maggie is always asking me great questions about becoming a more proficient web designer.
If you don’t mind, I wanted to get some input from you regarding the interactive/web community in Chicago. As you know, I’ve been interested in brushing up on this aspect of my design skillset and found what I think might be an intensive web design program. It has also been suggested that I look into the Art Institute and IIT Institute of Design. I like the idea of the down and dirty 1-year portfolio school, but I’m looking for inside info about it. I think it is the kind of thing where you get out what you put in, but I would like to know more.
Here is a list of the programs I’m looking at (scroll down to Web Design track).
Do you know anything about this place? Do you know anyone who has gone there/is going?
Any thoughts you have would be helpful or if you happen to know anyone in the local scene who has dealt with students or been in attendance themselves, I would love to talk to someone.
I wrote her back:
I know you’ve got your mind set on school, but I don’t think that’s really the answer. I’ve never known anyone to gain much from using their Art Institute or Columbia College degrees, either. Those degrees don’t open any special doors. In a years time, you could learn a lot more just by reverse engineering the best web designs you can find–even if just as a hobby.
If you’ve got the cheddar to throw around, though, there’s no dearth of online programs from folks who are much more “with it” than 99.99% of classroom instructors. You could start with either ThinkVitamin or NetTuts. These sites cost well under $30/month. Another great option is Ben Hunt’s Pro Web Design Course. It may be slightly pricy, but it focuses on how to create conversation-oriented sites that are profitable (read: you can charge higher fees), so it’s definitely a great investment.
I never dropped money on either of those sites, though, because I knew I wouldn’t immerse myself to justify the cost. If you’ve got the dedication, I really do see them as great, less expensive options to traditional classroom learning. There are also lots of free articles and tutorials on those memberships sites, as well as many other sites you’ve probably read.
Keep in mind that video has another great advantage to live classes, too–your lessons will always move forward (and rewind) at the speed you’re most comfortable. That was my biggest gripe with my programming class; even with three people, we moved at the professor’s pace and I think he didn’t minded leaving us behind.
The other major issue is that these instructors are never going to be teaching you the latest techniques or technologies–that’s the nature of the ivory tower. You’ll never know it, but whatever you learn from these classes will have already been heavily devalued in the real world by the time you fully grasp it.
If you need any other suggestions, just let me know. Also, if you could, provide me with a rundown of the technologies you’re already comfortable with, as well as the ones you think you need to know. I’d be more than happy to help you find the resources to help you learn more. I’ve attached a few ebooks that you might like in the meantime. Good luck!
What do you think about the idea of a portfolio school or additional web design classes in general?
October 20, 2010
Basecamp is the world’s most famous web-based project management software. It was launched in 2004 by 37Signals, a leading Chicago software company founded by Jason Fried.
Basecamp boasts millions of users and even more importantly, it’s the software that all other project management applications (both web and desktop) are now judged. In short, it’s the lifeblood of many web workers, this one notwithstanding. I see a real need for formal documentation on Basecamp’s best practices, so I’m going to be publishing a series of posts about properly using the software, starting with how to use to-do lists. I hope you enjoy.
Creating To-do Lists in Basecamp
Basecamp makes it incredibly easy to split up responsibilities and keep your team on track. With Basecamp’s to-do feature, you can quickly create a list of tasks and determine who’s doing what. Here’s how to do it.
- First, select the project you and your team will be working on. Make sure everyone you need to include in your project has been included. You won’t be able to assign your to-do items to people who aren’t included in the project.
- Next, click on the to-do tab. It’s right under the name of the project and three spaces over from the leftmost side of the upper menu bar.
- You should see two small red links at the top of the to-do list page. Click on the one that says “new to-do list.”
- As soon as you click the link, you’ll see two boxes. One of them has a title field and another contains your to-do list description. There are a few other options like the ability to make the list private, but we’ll ignore those for now.
- Enter the title of your list and your short description of the items in the list. Once you’re done, click on the “create this list” button at the bottom.
Congratulations, you’ve created a new to-do list for your project! Now you can start to add items and assign them to your team members.
Adding and Assigning Tasks
- The “enter a to-do item” box should appear right under the title of the list. Enter a description of the thing that needs to get done.
- Just underneath, you’ll see the words “who’s responsible.” When you click on the menu below it, a list of team members will pop up. Select the person who is responsible for the task.
- You can also decide if you want this person to receive an email notification as soon as you post the new to-do item. You do this by clicking on the box next to the menu.
- If more than one person is responsible for an item, you can just pick “anyone” under the who’s responsible menu.When you’re finished adding items to your list, click on the small red link below.
- You can order the items in your to-do list by click and dragging the cross shaped icon on the left. You can also check items off of your list by clicking on the box to the left of each item.
Commenting on To-do Items
Another really cool feature in Basecamp is the ability to comment on individual to-do list items. That way, whenever somebody stumbles upon the to-do item, that person can see what others have said about the item in the past. This keeps everyone up to date on any recent project developments.
- Move your mouse over the to-do list item. As your mouse hovers, a little speech bubble will show up on the right side. Click on it.
- When you click on the speech bubble, you’ll get redirected to the to-do item’s page. If there are already comments on the to-do item, you can read them or you can add your own comment below.
- Whenever you leave a comment, you can attach important files and pick who gets an email notification. This is handy when you don’t want to bother everyone with your comment.
- Go ahead and leave a comment. Now head back to the to-do list page and have a look at your to-do list item. You should see a black speech bubble to the right of the item. The black speech bubble means the item has a comment (i.e. your comment silly).
- Whenever you see a to-do list item with a green speech bubble, it means the item has new comments that you haven’t read yet. It might be worth your time to have a look at the item’s comments.
And that’s it for to-do lists in Basecamp. As you can see, Basecamp was designed to be simple, fast, and intuitive from the bottom up. With to-do lists, it’s remarkably easy to get things done!
September 26, 2010
I’ve been struggling to upgrade my WordPress site for some time now.
I couldn’t download plugin updates, let alone install the latest version of WordPress without using a plugin like WordPress Automatic Upgrade. That plugin throws WordPress into a fancy maintenance mode, so you can go about your upgrading business. It works well, but it’s not meant for making quick plugin upgrades.
The final straw came today, though, when after manually updating a handful of plugins, I was unable to reactivate all my recently activated plugins. I tried activating them all at once and when that failed, I went in batches and finally, one by one until almost every one was turned back on. When I finally got most of my plugins going simultaneously, I faced another conundrum—couldn’t see any content on the plugins.php page on my WordPress backend.
Update 10/12/2010: WPEngineer published a great article on WordPress memory limit
Prior to all these shenanigans, I had also given up on trying to activate the Scribe SEO plugin along with any other plugins due to it triggering a fatal error claiming lack of memory. Although inconvenient, at least this issue had an error dialogue and provided a clue. I figured all the other plugin issues were related to this memory issue, as well.
I did a quick Google search to try to understand memory issues as they pertain to WordPress (and more importantly, how to get around this on a shared host). One forum explained that this was actually called a PHP memory limit.
I had dealt with this issue once before—a long time ago—back in my WordPress salad days. At the time, the PHP memory limit set by my work’s webhost was crashing my first WordPress site several times a day. Since I knew very little about WordPress then (or any kind of web development, for that matter), I never did figure out a good solution to keep that site from going down. I think I just ignored the downtime as best I could and passed the buck when I moved on to a new company.
Anyway, this time I had the benefit of four years WordPress and development environment experience. After learning a bit about PHP memory limits from the forum I mentioned, I checked to see if any plugins could solve my issue. It was a long shot, but I did find a plugin, WP Overview (lite) Dashboard Memory Bump Usage, that allowed me to see my site’s memory usage and limits.
So after seeing the numbers in front of me (32MB available, 31.3MB used) and making a final attempt at changing the values through CPanel, I was finally ready to submit a support request. When I finally contacted WPWebHost to see if they would up my PHP memory limit, of course they said yes. Within 10 minutes, I was ramped up to 64MB, my plugins page was working and I even activated Scribe, the plugin I originally gave up upon using.
I have to say, that it’s very cool to see everything working on the backend of my WordPress site. I bet I could even update my plugins and upload images to my posts without bringing down the whole site, too. So if you are having issues updating your site, contact your webhost. You may have a very low PHP memory limit that only they can change for you.
September 23, 2010
Stuff We Love
On Wednesday, my article “How did ThemeForest become the red headed stepchild of the WordPress community?” was published on WPCandy. Frankly, I think that the article was a success; so far, it’s received over 40 comments, including several from Envato staffers and their CEO, Collis Ta’eed, as well as comments from important WordPress community members like Justin Tadlock and Jason Schuller.
A lot of the feedback I received was positive, but more importantly, I think that I started a great discussion between Envato and many members of the WordPress community–exactly the outcome I was hoping to achieve and exactly the situation that the article noted had been missing in the past.
A Universal ThemeForest WordPress Framework
One of the ideas that I proposed in that article was creating a WordPress theme framework for ThemeForest authors. This idea actually looks like it has traction now; the two Envato staffers disclosed that they are indeed working on the project and hope to release the framework shortly.
I love the idea of an options page framework. I really think this is a big step in standardizing what is almost always the same bit of functionality (i.e. logo, footer text, etc).
A lot of authors may resist the idea of someone else creating their theme’s code, but somehow, I bet when the authors who insist on doing everything themselves see the increased sales for themes using the Envato framework, they’ll likely change their minds.
I’ve always believed that theme developers need to focus on designing beautiful themes, not writing variants of the same options page we’ve seen over and over again. I’ve never bought an ugly theme with a great options page. Eventually, authors need to determine how much ROI there is in being a complete independent.
For argument’s sake, I wouldn’t want a developer to rewrite the WordPress core every time they publish a theme, either. It’s obviously best for everyone to use a centralized, updated version of a software that works and can be built on top of.
Stricter Coding Standards
Keeping with the standardization idea, there certainly needs to be higher coding standards for templates ThemeForest sells–framework or no framework.
A lot of the detractors were specifically peeved that they had to spend so much time fixing ThemeForest authors’ code, when obviously, a theme should probably work with common WordPress plugins right out of the box. There’s no excuse not to play well with GravityForms. If your theme doesn’t, though, there are going to be quite a few unhappy customers.
More Detailed Theme Rating and Theme Details
Right now, how do you determine the quality of a theme on ThemeForest prior to purchasing it?
Other than the number of sales and other experiences with a particular theme author, I usually go by the kinds of questions I read in the theme’s latest comments. If they’re all newbie questions (“how do I load the XML file?”), then the theme is probably fine. The amount of updates is a huge indicator of author involvement, too.
Unfortunately, that system leaves a lot to be desired.
With any marketplace (i.e. Amazon.com), ratings are undeniably crucial. But the ratings on ThemeForest are worthless. They don’t collect comments, they don’t reflect version numbers and they aren’t specific at all. A great rating system needs to tell a product’s story quickly and concisely but a simple 0-5 star rating tells us little if anything about what we’re purchasing.
Ideally, there should be multiple ratings for each theme; one for design, one for code, one for uniqueness and maybe one for compatibility. Those four criteria would certainly help buyers make a better informed decision about the themes they’re purchasing.
It also wouldn’t hurt if the comments were separated by theme version number–version number being something else that should also be listed generously throughout the theme purchase page. Adding a change log to go with that would go a long way to helping alleviate update questions, as well.
WordPress and WordCamp Participation
The Envato team is spread around the world and I can’t see why more of their staff hasn’t appeared/spoken at the WordCamps equally spread around the world. I mean, I spoke at WordCamp Chicago in June and I hardly represent the zeitgeist of WordPress.
I also think that there needs to be more communication (like that in the original article’s comments) in the WordPress community. We’re not going to improve the project if we keep bringing the same people to the table, all with the same background and opinions. Envato as a whole as very valuable to WordPress and it just seems weird that they aren’t more represented in WordPress community events.
ThemeForest won’t improve, either, unless the experts let them know what needs to be changed with their service. It would be great to have more open discussions about ThemeForest at events like WordCamps–it wouldn’t be a bad marketing move by Envato, either.
Better Affiliate Payouts
This might be a stretch to include on this wishlist, but I can think of one other reason why so many bloggers and developers love companies like StudioPress and WooThemes: they have much (much) better affiliate programs than ThemeForest.
[To note, ThemeForest provides affiliate payout, but only for a customer's first deposit. That doesn't really provide any compensation for selling to people who have already purchased an item from one of the Envato marketplaces. The other theme companies have more traditional affiliate programs--a percentage of each sale for referring customers.]
So, in the end, it may be the lack of economic incentive that keeps folks quiet about ThemeForest (although maybe they want to keep the service a secret, as well. Who really knows?).
So, did I miss anything?
Chime in with your comments below.
September 7, 2010
I like to see clients involved in the content management process early. It’s certainly best if they place their own initial content directly into WordPress, but if that’s not possible, then they should at least be editing their first draft content inside of WordPress. It’s damn-near silly to tell me what needs to be edited when the client can make the changes himself in a fraction of the time. Pushing all the content management on to us also creates very bad habits that don’t benefit anyone.
Most obviously, getting the client involved early on reduces the effort in teaching someone WordPress. I believe that WordPress doesn’t need to be taught; the clients just need to jump right in. If I empower my clients and don’t make excuses for them, I’ll usually end up with a better website and happier clients—all in a shorter time frame.
I’ve worked with both types of clients—hands on and hands off. I’ve enabled the hands-off clients myself, too and you know what happens? Clients that don’t participate early on never participate; their sites die or stagnate and they end up begrudging me for it anyway. These clients hate their websites because they don’t understand how to use them.
The clients that do get involved in WordPress early, though (either through coercion or volunteering) will never treat their sites like a leper. Plus, after they’ve spent the last year looking at their site a couple times a week, they’ll be a lot more likely to pay for a redesign (or new theme) down the road. I consider that a win for the developer, site owner and all the visitors who appreciate the site evolving over time.