Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cultural institution visits: Part two of the Cummer Museum

Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

Cultural Heritage:
The Cummer seems to take seriously the notion that museums can help to preserve cultural heritage on a global, national, and local level. In the vaguest sense of this definition, the museum helps to preserve and make accessible objects ranging from decorative and functional antiquities to European Old Master paintings to contemporary works; additionally, the gardens are preserved as they were in the 1950s and 60s, with only the surrounding Jacksonville skyline altering the original experience of the space. These objects and spaces have obvious value as pieces that recount human experience through diverse time periods and cultures, but there is also more depth to the Cummer’s stewardship, reflecting ideas put forth by UNESCO (2002) which state that “today, the notion of heritage is an open one which can develop new objects and put forward new meanings as it reflects living culture rather than an ossified image of the past” (p. 7). This idea is evident in the events and slogan of the 50-year celebration, which is “Celebrating 50 Years by Looking Forward” and includes both restoration and highlighting of historical aspects of the museum and new pieces and interpretations, as well as renewed attention to the cultural identity of the surrounding neighborhood community and the current development of a new social space to engage visitors.

UNESCO further states that “a museum works for the endogenous development of social communities whose testimonies it conserves while lending a voice to their cultural aspirations” (p. 29), and this is evident in the inclusion of meaningful exchanges between the museum and its visitors, as well as support for the development of original works, programs, and exhibitions that reflect the community. For example, the sponsorship of an exhibition of work by and about the local neighborhood showcases one way that the museum is attempting to occupy a space of dialog and creation, and it illustrates the efforts to both preserve the architectural and community heritage and encourage reflection and growth. I would also suggest that this very partnership underscores the UNESCO concern for historic cities (p. 25)—or in this case a historic neighborhood within a relatively young city—by highlighting the voices, experiences, and artistic expressions of residents related to this area and the preservation organization that they operate, and by seeking to inform and educate about the “heritage and its accumulation over time - the history of its buildings, streets, districts and residents [which] should be regarded as the force and foundation of all sustainable development of historic cities and of their future” (p. 25). This museum definitely supports and engages in responsible development with an eye to both the past and the future.

Reactions to the collection and museum experience:
I would be remiss in not beginning my discussion here by acknowledging the extreme care the Cummer Museum has taken to acknowledge and encourage users, which is something not always evident in an art museum even if it is understood that this is a core mission. For starters, the educational gallery space offers opportunities for conventional learning as well as art production and experimentation with materials. It is designed for children, but is highly engaging for adults as well. It teaches concepts of texture, space, material, color, historical significance, and so forth through exploratory activities, such as larger-than-life 3-D breakdowns of a painting that a user can walk through to get a better sense of different picture planes, or opportunities to touch fluffy, soft, or rigid materials that are pictured in 2-D works. Touchable sculptures line the far edge of a timeline of art history that visitors can walk along, reading information about art, culture, technology and politics along the floor, while viewing major works from the period and listening to music playing above. Truly, I can’t adequately express how wonderful this space is, except to say that it rivals the type of interactive experiences that large museums such as the Smithsonian make possible, and it shows in no uncertain terms that the museum is dedicated to learning and discovery in a way that firmly adheres to the American Association of Museum standards for education and interpretation. Of particular note, the use of technology and the diversity of content and programs targeted to different age groups underscore that “the museum uses techniques, technologies, and methods appropriate to its educational goals, content, audiences, and resources” (p. 1).

Along these lines, it is also evident that the museum hopes to connect viewing with learning inside and outside the space and to encourage further study. In the Meissen gallery, for instance, they have embraced technology and added a QR code-driven audio tour, which can be accessed in whole or part. This is echoed with the ability to check out an iPod with this same tour, and by the ability to go online after a visit and listen to the contents again through a podcast. I was excited to see the QR codes, because I felt that embracing this technology was a bold step that not too many similarly sized museums I’ve visited have tried; ultimately it was frustrating, however, because my poor cell phone reception equated to a 15-minute download time. Even so, the concept is there, and linking to alternatives for access that account for different audience preferences is something the Cummer is doing well. The museum also has touch screens with access to interactive timelines in several of the galleries, which are again resources that can be accessed online after the visit.

Beyond these designated learning spaces, however, there are quieter examples of encouragement. Carr (2006) suggests that cultural institutions are places where people learn through reflection and questioning, and where visitor experiences with the collection are varied. He questions how museums can help visitors capture fleeting moments of clarity or emotion, when “every work in a collection can hold an evocative moment for someone: [when] something there is intangibly present and moving, just for them” (p. 45). I think we all experience this at times, and then move forward, often without allowing the experience to shape our knowledge in any meaningful way. The Cummer, however, performed the simple act of encouraging people to reflect on these moments simply by sharing user thoughts (anonymous or attributed to individuals) throughout the gallery spaces in the form of quotations mounted near particular artworks. This was a gesture I really loved because it served as a graceful reminder that regardless of age or education, artworks can be stirring and personal reactions and reflections are important. The comments themselves ranged from profound and personal to rather trite, but each was pulled simply by looking at comment cards and listening to the public—this also had the added benefit of showing visitors that the museum does engage with its community on a meaningful level.

For myself, the collections were like most in a museum of this size—around 5,000 pieces from various points in history—which is to say that a few works were extremely thought-provoking, many were good examples from art historical periods, and I figured that I could really interest myself in most of the others if I were to read more about the background. I really do find that almost anything can become interesting given access to historical context or unexpected contemporary relationships. Perhaps because of this, what I found most engaging as an entire collection area was the original work that founded the museum. I mentioned previously that the museum pays close attention to preserving the original gardens and educating the public about the founder, Ninah Cummer, and her family. This includes a gallery space called the Tudor Room that is a restoration of a room in the original Cummer house, including artwork, which shows how the whims of the Cummers’ decorating tastes form the underpinnings of the collection. An adjacent gallery showcases historic photos of the family, grounds, and gardens, which spur almost an artificial sense of déjà vu when you look at the current Tudor Room and garden spaces, and was a sensation that I rather enjoyed.

What these spaces also did for my understanding of the founding collection of 60 works was encourage what Carr (2006) references when he encourages talking, questioning, and thinking about the human hand and mind in the creation of objects, especially as a gateway to considering the “meaning and power” of the works (p. 46, 52). The Cummer Museum also has a formal gallery devoted to showcasing a selection of works from those that Ninah Cummer donated; this is the guiding curatorial consideration in the space and the result is an eclectic mixture of European and American works, with a tiny Rubens painting on one wall, a Winslow Homer and Childe Hassam on another, and a work by the Dutch artist Paulus Bor on another. This space was fascinating because on one hand it informed my practical understanding of how some of the major collection areas in the museum were outlined, and on another it gave me a strange sense of understanding the founder and the space as a whole in a slightly different way. Instead of being confused by the lack of thematic or period-specific organization in this display, I gained a better understanding of the human mind at work behind this museum, which includes a sense of her personal tastes. Coupled with the historic touches, the unchanged gardens, and the photographs, I have an understanding about the collections and this neighborhood—which I have never seen before—that relies in large part on a connection to the past and on another person’s experience. This was my personal journey through the space, and one, that if not cultivated, was at least shaped by the considerations of the institution and the questions and associations that their presentation, atmosphere, and didactic materials encouraged. It is also an experience that I imagine is shared by many visitors, and is one that (since I have been thinking about it off and on all week) I might consider transformative.

American Association of Museums. (n.d.). Characteristics of Excellence for U.S. Museums. Retrieved from

Carr, D. (2006). A place not a place: reflections and possibility in museums and libraries. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. (2011). About the Cummer: Museum history. Retrieved from

Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Initials. (2011). Accessibility. Retrieved from

Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Initials. (2011). Events. Retrieved from

Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. (2011). Weaver Academy. Retrieved from

UNESCO. (2002). United Nations year for cultural heritage information kit. Retrieved from

Cultural institution visits--a paper in a few parts

The Cummer Museum is located, quite literally, on the banks of the St. Johns River in the historic Riverside neighborhood of Jacksonville; the Riverside Arts Market (held on Saturdays from April through December under the Fuller Warren Bridge) is just down the street. Rather fittingly, the Garden Club of Jacksonville, which was founded by the main namesake of the museum, Ninah Cummer, is located next door. Both of these neighbors nicely echo the character of the museum and of the broader community in which it is situated. The remainder of the neighborhood is composed of residential and commercial buildings that preserve an interesting mixture of architectural styles and history, due to a strong preservation organization that operates in the area (Riverside Avondale Preservation, Inc.).

The museum itself echoes the character of the type of preservation that is evident in the rest of the area, which is to say that while the history is retained, it doesn’t function as an outdated structure. Instead, the building was constructed on the site of Arthur and Ninah Cummer’s home, which was donated for demolition and subsequent building of a museum space capable of housing a collection of priceless works (Cummer Museum, 2011, Museum History). The building was completed in 1961 and while it replaced a historic home with a more modern building, much of the feel of the original home, grounds, and namesake is still evident. In fact, while the focus is on the art collection, the attention to the history of the institution and the preservation of the original gardens give it an atmosphere that is unlike many other museums. I’ll expound on this point in greater detail later, but part of the reason that this museum fits seamlessly into the surroundings is this very awareness of a balance between progress and heritage that is obviously significant to the rest of the community.

As far as I can tell there are many partnerships between the Cummer and surrounding organizations, but none that explicitly involve area libraries of any type. Perusing the website and brochures available at the museum yielded no mentions of library partnership; however, a non-circulating library of 10,000 resources related to the collections and traveling exhibitions is available onsite, so there is a library presence in the space. When I spoke with an educator that was staffing the desk in the hands-on gallery space and inquired about museum partnerships the focus was definitely on collaborations with schools in the county and on the programs co-sponsored by VSA Arts. In the case of the former, the Duval County School District provides admission and bus costs for students at arts magnet schools to visit the site each year; this program is a viable opportunity for students to tour and make art at the museum, however the scope of the partnership has steadily decreased over the past few years due to budget issues. The Weaver Academy of Art at the Cummer was started in 2007 to fund visits for kids from underserved schools and is supported primarily by Jaguar owners Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver (Cummer Museum, 2011, Weaver Academy). That program involves teacher training, monthly museum staff visits to the participating schools for instruction and art making, followed by two or more school visits to the museum.

VSA Arts forms the other major educational partnership, with the Jacksonville VSA Arts chapter based out of the Cummer. This partnership equates to a museum that offers a tremendous amount of specialized programming for adults and children with disabilities. This includes touchable sculpture and garden collections; Women of Vision, a monthly program of study in art history and studio time for visually impaired adult women; educational resources and specialized tours for ESE students; teacher in-service and lesson plans for special needs classes; and a partnership with St. Vincent’s Healthcare that offers art therapy workshops to children with cancer (Cummer Museum, 2011, Accessibility). In addition to the official programs offered in partnership with VSA Arts, I think the Cummer benefits tremendously from their expertise. They have signs proclaiming that the galleries and gardens are all wheelchair accessible, but their attention to accessibility details is much greater than that. They have label text that adheres to guidelines for the visually impaired regarding contrast, size, and color and have large amounts of floor space and open layouts for easily maneuvering wheelchairs (or strollers). More significantly, however, I noticed that any objects in vitrines where placed low enough for easy viewing and that they have avoided laying flat objects in the cases or placing label text or object numbers on flat surfaces, which is common. Overall, it felt like the layouts were considerate without feeling overly fussy and that the spaces would be inviting to a variety of visitors.

The Cummer also seems to care deeply about engaging with the community, and the last partnership I will mention clearly demonstrates this. They are collaborating with the Riverside Avondale Preservation organization to create an exhibition, set to open in mid-June, about the historic community in which the museum resides. The Neighborhood as Art: Celebrating the Riverside Avondale Area exhibition is going to feature contemporary works in media such as painting, sculpture, and video created by local artists and placed near historic photos of the Riverside and Avondale neighborhoods. The preservation organization is providing the photos to act as a counterpoint to the contemporary interpretations and memory-laced accounts of the neighborhood (Cummer Museum, 2011, Events). This exhibition should fit nicely with the goals of the preservation organization, which are to preserve and enliven the neighborhood so it remains an active community; the Cummer seeks to do the same by preserving its own history as part of this community. Carr (2006) notes that “throughout the museum, apart from the identification of objects and their contexts, it may be useful to emphasize the interwoven continuities of things, the threads and ribbons that interlace artifacts with their human observers” (p. 115). This exhibition and partnership seeks to present thoughtful interpretations of the neighborhood and to capture something more than the collection of buildings that comprise the physical location— it should help to record the intangible aspects of a living, breathing, evolving community.

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is accredited by the American Association of Museums. Also, though not an indication of accreditation, the museum was added to the National Register of Historic Places in January, 2010, in recognition of the importance of the gardens.

The museum has a number of publications, ranging from a general monthly newsletter and a newsletter geared toward art education (Connections) to gallery guides and interactive family guides that accompany specific exhibitions, full-scale scholarly books, and podcasts and interactive web-based timelines. The selection of printed books is small, but extremely appealing. For starters, they have a postcard-sized book that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the museum (this year) by showcasing the 50 favorite images from the collection as voted upon by museum staff, docents, and the visiting public. This book is sleek, affordable, and showcases the breadth of the permanent collections as well as the care the museum places on listening to the opinions of their visitors. There is also a general museum handbook and several publications specifically about the gardens. The one I found most impressive, however, was a book written by Urich Pietsch, a German scholar and curator of Meissen porcelain, that showcases around 700 pieces from the Cummer collection. This book was published in 2011 and accompanies the new installation of the Cummer’s Meissen collection (although not an exhibition catalog), which is the most significant collection of these works in the United States. They have several of these books set out near extremely comfortable chairs in the gallery space, which I thought was actually quite conducive to reading large portions of the text. This book was a great contrast to the many museum highlights publications that focus on simple overviews of the works and definitely shows that the museum is interested in targeting serious scholars by assisting and supporting research and compilation of this book.

Adult Programs:
The Cummer Museum has a number of programs for adults to engage with the collections (ranging from traditional to innovative) and incorporates museum history, gardens, and art history into its offerings. They also seem to effectively combine opportunities for socializing with educational endeavors, which indicates that they understand the importance of making learning opportunities fun in order to attract the largest possible audience. For instance, on the third Wednesday and Thursday of each month they offer a program targeted toward seniors (although not limited to this demographic) that combines a gallery talk with a tea party. Having this social function allows visitors to relax and also encourages discussion about the collections and lecture. The museum also offers frequent themed and general tours, adult art making classes, formal lectures, and events such as concerts and plays that are intended to get people engaging with the space in unexpected ways. The partnership with VSA Arts also includes a number of programs targeted to adults with a range of disabilities, such as alternative tours intended for people with vision impairment that can also be combined with adaptive studio experiences that include specialized equipment to help people with mobility issues engage in creative expression.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Delicious... the saga continues

I have mentioned Delicious here on numerous occasions, but it has made news--albeit on a minor level--often enough to keep me following the story. The thing is, I feel like I keep getting the same bits of information and then lamenting the same issues over and over again. A little forward momentum, even in a direction I don't appreciate, would be such a welcome change here.

To recap:
First Delicious was acquired by Yahoo, but no redesign of the interface occurred in the five years they held the service; this was disappointing since the archaic design quality interferes with user perceptions of how current the content could possibly be--problematic for an inherently useful, but underused tool. Then Yahoo announced that it would close the service ("sunset," to be exact). An outcry arose from organizations, especially libraries and educational technology groups that had invested heavily in leveraging the social bookmarking resource. Yahoo "clarified" that "sunsetting" meant selling--a very convenient response to the unanticipated negative publicity the closure announcement generated. Still, I felt good that the public outcry helped to save the service. However, there was still no redesign and apparently no new attention to the potential of the service from Yahoo, despite the hundreds of articles I read detailing great suggestions.

Then, in April, it was sold to Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, co-founders of YouTube. And still we wait. No new design, no relaunch, no real word on the progress. And this brings me to the heart of this blog post, which is that no matter how much I support the idea of Delicious, even my patience is wearing thin. How many others have written off the service long ago, and is it reasonable to expect them to come back at this point? An article released this weekend by the New York Times covers some of the new features that will be unrolled, but in a very cursory manner--too sketchy, I think, to be of much value. Marshall Kirkpatrick added a fantastic blog post to this discussion, and proceeded to (yet again) outline a visionary list of features that would make the Delicious website into an unbeatable service. Seriously awesome stuff, but then several of the reader comments proceeded to hit on the lingering doubts that people still have, which primarily hinge on timeframes. This redesign may legitimately take time, but really, time is beyond up on this process. More teaser articles and interviews, in my opinion, can only hurt this endeavor. Roll out a pretty, shiny new Delicious already, before we all actually lose our last shred of interest!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ursus Wehrli: Order and chaos

I just stumbled on this Ted talk from Ursus Wehrli and found his work kind of interesting, although I think I might like it better without his interjections. Despite his trivializing of the content of his own pieces, which I found to be quite irritating and one-note, there is a truly smart concept here. As a society we are somewhat obsessed with data, categorization, and applying an order that is rather inorganic to everything around us. This order is something we seek and yet it is simultaneously unnerving; Wehrli hits on this reality in a humorous way through his work. His talk, however, makes his work seem like nothing more than an arrogant, postmodern, "art school" snub at the very concept of producing contemporary art, which is to retread art history in a "wink, wink" manner. Despite his best efforts, however, his work is still worth consideration.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Finding connections in words, images, and an imagined past

"In our world, it is knowledge and experience and communication that will best palliate and heal fear and emptiness." - David Carr

I just finished reading David Carr's A Place Not A Place, a poetic reflection on his experiences in museums and libraries over the course of his adult life. His accounts of his experiences and ideas about how such institutions can reach out to visitors and make their experiences educational and transformative are honest, raw, and sometimes frustrating and I feel a peculiar connection to his words. He grapples with how we can encourage connection and how easily we can disrupt this process, unknowingly and ignorantly pulling connection away from our viewers. And he talks about the fragility of our experiences and how they can mark us (scar, perhaps is a better word). Above all, however, he believes that as museum professionals and librarians we have an opportunity to provide access to life-altering content and to help our users make connections and find meaning. That, truly, can be powerful.

His text got me reflecting a little myself on recent experiences in museum settings. Certainly having worked in museum education I can understand his concerns for offering context, information, and connections in a way that draws people into the works. And I can also understand how easily we get in the way of quiet and profound reflection, of how easily a tour can excite or discourage, a discussion engage or alienate. I have seen docents dominate visitors and make them unsure of their own experiences, or to infuriate and embarrass them by putting them on the spot. I have also seen programs and tours delivered with such knowledge and enthusiasm that the viewers are drawn into the worlds created before them and leave in active discussions and undoubtedly in search of additional information and similar experiences. I have seen the same accomplished through sophisticated displays and interpretations. The latter, in fact, I experienced at the Cummer Museum of Art just recently.

What I found riveting about this museum was the connections to the past. David Carr references the importance of directing attention to the hand of the creator, which we sometimes lose amidst the controlled environment of a gallery space. The Cummer, in its attention to the history of the space, to the original eclectic collection of the founder, succeeded in spotlighting the mind at work behind the current collection areas. It created a connection to the vision of a woman that simply loved art and felt it deserved a prominent place in our society. A gallery space devoted to her donations, where a small Rubens was displayed alongside a Winslow Homer and a Childe Hassam, coupled with the historic gardens outside and the historic touches and photographs present in a restored version of a room in her home helped me to create a connection to the past based largely on another person's experience--and it was absolutely riveting.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Photography: Another throwback

I saw an article on Mashable Tech today that contained an infographic put together by the Adobe design team that is responsible for digital photography software production. It seems to me that every few months I see such a graphic or a story about the last Kodachrome chemicals; all inevitably pose the "provocative" question about whether people remember or miss getting film developed. Provocative, of course, because the questioners know it to be a cheap and easy way to elicit the predictable pro and anti, bleeding heart responses, with a few accusations on each side that people don't recognize quality or (the only possible comeback) people that don't love digital are OLD.

Despite the predictability of these responses, however, it got me thinking about why people are so vehement in their position and of course it got me a little nostalgic for film. For starters, let me refute the idea that all people that have a soft spot for film are old--I received my BFA in photography in 2000 and my MFA in 2004. I learned to shoot and process film and when I taught basic photography we used traditional darkroom techniques. This is still done in many places and it is not because those institutions are behind the times. It is done this way because the processes still have value and learning them tends to lead to a better mastery of the camera--this is unarguably a prerequisite to becoming a professional.

I should mention that I shoot and process my work digitally. It is difficult to argue against the accessibility of software as opposed to chemistry. However, I do remember the magic of watching an image develop on paper or the anticipation of waiting for the film to come off the reel. This was part of the collective experience of traditional processing and to deny this would be inhuman. But to dwell on this mysticism is also to trivialize the value of chemical processing. It taught me patience and made me learn how to control my camera. I learned to shoot a lot, but also to pay attention to what I was shooting and to how I was composing. Digital often robs people of this ability because the idea that everything can be fixed in post processing takes over. Shoots get sloppy and there is no need to pay attention to the single frame. Memory is cheap, so just shoot, shoot, shoot and hope for the best. Also, as our level of patience has diminished our expectation that electronics will handle all the details has increased. Thus, using the manual functions of a camera, still necessary to fully control your imagery, is becoming unthinkable to many. This is, perhaps, what some of those sputtering respondents mean when they proclaim digital will always be inferior to film.

There is, I believe, another reason that digital photography has inspired a backlash unlike the digitization of other materials. Interestingly, photography has a dynamic history that is still young, at least compared to that of ceramics, sculpture, or painting; and yet, while truly archaic processes are still prized in those fields, basic photography has a rap for being old and outdated. It carries a sense of backwardness and those clinging are not valuing history, they are simply anti-technologists. This is unfair, but perhaps fitting in such a rapidly changing medium. However, while improvements in chemistry have replaced early methods--daguerreotypes, anyone, how about nitrate films--and have been embraced along the way, digital processes are different. Digital photography does not build on tradition; it is not the next advancement of process but instead a radical departure. It is perhaps the abject rejection of film and chemistry that stings for so many people. It is, like so much in our culture, easy to perceive this as a rejection of history, tradition, and wisdom--it is youth gone wild.

So as not to end with poetics, which seem to exacerbate the existing perception problems, let me stand in a gray area. Digital photography is the obvious path. It is cleaner, more environmentally responsible, and more accessible (I won't touch the subset of photographers that think it is this very accessibility that deflates the sails of a "complex" field; I will save that for another day). It is a powerful tool that has come into its own. But there is still a need for film. It imbues us with a sense of patience and sharpens our skills; this is crucial in the learning stages. There is a Zen-like quality that needs to be realized in order to combat the instantaneousness of digital photo. Not to diminish instant photography, but in the learning stages a full mastery of the medium and tools is just not encouraged by this approach. So bring on both--it will keep future photographers grounded in excellent technique and will prevent us from slipping into the perpetual cult of the amateur.          

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Florida Views: Development and Vision

I just completed a fantastic, but extremely packed semester at USF. It was full of exceptionally useful course material and I was able to translate a final project for my digital library class into a mock-up for a collection I have been working with at the Matheson Museum. I have been scanning a collection of Florida stereoview cards (about 1,200 total) and creating a finding aid for these objects. Working with these images each week has been truly enlightening as I have learned a great deal about Florida history and am constantly reminded about the surprising youth of this state--at least in a modern sense. My digital library is a preliminary sketch, created using Omeka software, for a full scale library that I will work on over the next few months. Check out the first version to see some great images and maps and stay tuned for updates; I will post a detailed account of the design and curation as the project develops. I love it when I am able to translate coursework into a tangible product, and digitizing is one of my favorite endeavors.

Florida Views: Development and Vision digital library:

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Technology as a harbinger of doom? Not really. This work is no Nam June Paik...

I came across some interesting artwork this week called Apple Destroyed Products. The work consisted of photographs of iPhones, iPods, iPads, and MacBooks that had been mutilated in various ways by Michael Tompert and Paul Fairchild. The images are stunning in their beauty. However, this beauty is owed in part to the exquisite look of the Apple products in the first place, all of which remain completely identifiable; nothing has been reduced to a pile of goo. The artists, for their part, state rather unprofoundly that the work is an attempt "to make people think about their relationship with these universally beloved gadgets." Interestingly, this work doesn't make me me examine the relationship I have with my technology in any real manner, nor do I believe the artists were engaging in this process.

First off, this is not about just any technology since only new Apple products were used. The artists were acutely aware that a smashed Ipad would be more elegant than a mutilated Acer laptop or a Blackberry Curve phone. Apple exhibits a level of design and engineering that is hard to match. The artists have a reverence for this fact, given that none of the mutilation renders the products unrecognizable. They too are in awe, and this work is purely aesthetic. In the absence of the artist statement, I would have been tempted to view the work not as a comment on technology or Apple gadgets, but as an indictment of consumer waste. We discard these products often in favor of the next new thing, which is both the genius of Apple innovation (read: marketing) and the extreme selfishness of consumerism. I love progress, but we throw away functioning pieces without a thought for those who don't have access to these devices in the first place. We discard these items into stuffed landfills without regard for environmental impacts, all so we can have a newer device with a chrome finish or better apps. I am guilty of this.

This work falls short, however, of making me really examine my relationship with technology, or with Apple. The fact is, the artists benefited from good design here; they also used technology in the form of digital cameras to document the pieces, undoubtedly printed them with dye sub printing technology, and made sure to submit the works to online venues to get the word out about their show. I only discovered the work when a friend posted a link to Facebook. Technology here has made the work, and the artists have not gone far enough to either loathe or even struggle with the relationship. I see no abject hatred of the destroyed pieces. I see a lack of volume sufficient to comment on the true wastefulness of our culture. I'm sure a thousand bucks worth of new electronics seemed like a lot to the artist, but really, let's multiply that by at least ten-then maybe, maybe, we start to make a point.

I see no personal relationship to the devices evident either. Tompert cites his motivation for the project as watching his sons fight over an iPod Touch because he was too stupid to make sure each boy had the same games installed on his respective device. Big deal. This is not a comment on how Apple products get people worked up into a frenzy, it is a comment on how kids fight over everything. My brother and I fought over games, toys, books, food; we fought over little chocolate eggs my parents laid out as a scavenger hunt every Easter. Kids fight; it's not profound. An adult smashing an iPod out of anger that his kids are fighting is stupid. Reading that snippet of the artist statement made me realize that this work was not about anything more than the fact that the toxic liquid oozing out of a broken screen is super pretty.

Does this matter? Well, yes. In the absence of this vacuous artist statement I was willing to see a glimmer of something more than aesthetic pleasure. The artists didn't take the concept anywhere near far enough, but there was the possibility of a complex message that could be teased out. After reading the artists' drivel, it is clear this is a one-time series bent on gravy-training off Apple beauty while, (wink wink) offering the notion that people should think. This is not enough. All art makes people think something. And right now I think that if artists are not at all articulate, they have a two choices:

1. ask someone smarter to write the statement
2. remain silent

This is a lesson that these two artists, and many others besides, should learn quickly. Meaning isn't solely derived from intentionality, but a bad artist statement hinders meaning in a serious way. All I can focus on here is what I wish the work was and that is a sign of an idea that needs more attention. I am forced to identify all the reasons the artists are wrong about the meaning of their own work. Good art transcends this and inspires meaningful conversation and debate. Simplicity of content is not the same as inane or childish intentions, and sometime words eclipse potential.

Check out the work here:

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Today seems like a good day for a little nostalgia. New year, looking forward, looking back--you get the idea. I received a BFA in photography in 2000 and an MFA in photography in 2004. That means that I honed my craft in the wake of transitions to digital photography. Those transitions were swift and sometimes difficult for many who had been invested in film photography for the better part of their lives. I shot many roles of film, developed many prints, and spent hours bent over chemical baths. And this process was wonderful. There is indeed something magical about watching an image appear on paper or unrolling that film from the reel. I have spent more time on digital processes, but I can still admit with the most ardent film supporters that something intangible is gone from the process.

In my entire life I have only shot one roll of Kodachrome. It was difficult to have processed because it needed to be mailed to a lab. I am more of an instant turnaround time fan. And yet, the colors truly were superior. I can see why it earned legendary status in the photo world and even in popular culture. It was jarring a few years ago to hear the inevitable announcement that Kodak would no longer produce the film. It was simply sad to hear last week that the last role was processed. The last of the chemicals are gone. It made me think of holding unprocessed rolls. Of people discovering rolls years later and revealing the contents, sometimes after the photographer had died. It made think of the excitement and mystery of stumbling upon something and the anticipation of waiting for the reveal. And it made me sad to think that those undeveloped Kodachrome rolls out there in the world will be lost. We have lost a little slice of something monumental here and it warrants reflection.

Check out the Mashable Magazine article here:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Delicious going under? Really?

First I have to admit that I don't really utilize Delicious to its full potential, so I guess I am part of the problem here. I have two really great thematic lists set up--both of which accompanied library class projects--that I like to point people to from time to time. Beyond that, I have to say that I don't often think to go to Delicious for my own information gathering needs. But I should.

I was reading an article recently that suggested some ingenious ways to use Delicious, by, say, tracking which users are tagging current and significant content. By identifying a handful of these super-users it is easy to subscribe to the lists that are most likely to remain current and useful. It also offers a window into who is likely to have a fantastic blog. Finding tech resources (in particular) can be a challenge and Delicious really does offer a way to find the best stuff out there.  There are also fantastic thematic lists that teachers can use to weed through all the information out there to find lesson resources. It is a fantastic time saver for a group of professionals with very little extra time to comb the web. 

Beyond individual users, there are many institutiions that really rely on their Delicious links to share information--schools and libraries are among the most diligent users. So this begs an important question: Is the profitability of a service the only thing that matters? Sure, you can argue that Yahoo is expending valuable time and resources on maintaining Delicious, and that the profit potential is not there. Is it costing them money? Definitely. But who cares? Chalk it up to a social service and move on.

Museums and libraries offer free services all the time, often working on severely limited budgets. The point is to increase benefits of some kind to the community, which is a worthwhile endeavor. Yahoo, on the other hand, has tons of money, and is in the business of making more. Good for them. But is it really so hard for a for-profit company to see the benefits of maintaining a service just because it helps other organizations to better do their jobs? It isn't costing Yahoo much to maintain Delicious in the grand scheme of things.

What Yahoo needs to do is shift their attitude towards Delicious. Stop trying to make it into a cash cow--we have enough of that on the web already. Instead, why not publicize what a great public service it is (Target promotes their community giving campaigns all the time). It would be the best type of free advertising--the kind where a Goliath of a corporation does something for the little guys, just because they can. You can't buy that type of public endearment, and I know I would like Yahoo a lot better if I thought they cared at all about something besides profitability. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Creating a website: Design and technical issues - Part 4

Future Directions & Continuity:

Now for the last post about the design particulars of Taste the World Online.


In order to keep the website current, I created a blog for Anne using Blogger. To date I have written all the contents for the site, blog, and Facebook page, however when her schedule settles down a little she will be able to keep the website updated with content through Blogger. The blog will allow her to add recipes and party ideas directly from the Internet, without having to either modify the website or ask me to make frequent additions. What I will maintain are the box areas that feature announcements (like upcoming events). These areas are small, however, and maintenance will be minimal. The blog, however, will ensure that users can find current content associated with the site, so there should be no sense that the storefront might be abandoned. My other hope is that through blogging Anne can develop a following of users that will discover the store website through that forum.

Check out the blog here:

Site expansion:
The website is small in scale right now due to a number of factors. First, the store is newly opened, so the number of products available is relatively small and the number of products I was provided for photography purposes was even smaller. Therefore some of the category pages have less products listed and some product pages have alternate views while others (that could) do not. The space on these pages will allow for future growth, as will the addition of additional linked pages in each category.
Second, I have left space for buttons and shopping carts associated with ecommerce. I have researched some options and will likely use Zen Cart, which is an open source program that can be customized to fit the look of your website. I have encouraged Anne to create a PayPal Merchant Account to handle the payment (although to date she has been preoccupied with opening the physical store and is not ready to engage in online ordering). After reading about the pros and cons of the PayPal system, I feel that she would benefit from their small commission fee, recognizable status, and the protections they offer for ecommerce. The payment functions seem easy to set up, and they are compatible with many third-party shopping cart applications, including Zen Cart. Adding this functionality will be the next logical step in expanding this site in the future.

For now, the Taste the World website strikes a balance between informational pages (i.e. how to present cheese, why bother with roasted coffee, etc.) and product pages that give descriptive information and prices. Anyone trying to scope out the physical store prior to actually heading down there should find all the information they need on this website. The design and information on the Web should assure potential customers that the physical location—which they can see pictures of on the site—will live up to their expectations of high-quality products and a pleasant ambiance. The future of the site is exciting, as it is designed to grow at the rate of the business, and areas for expansion are already engineered into the basic design.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Creating a website: Design and technical issues - Part 3

Part three of this four part commentary on Taste the World Online addresses issues and challenges. If you have been following my posts over the past few months you are familiar with the discussion of some sticking points. Below are some of the larger challenges I encountered.

I photographed or drew all the images on the website in order to avoid any copyright infringement issues, with a few notable exceptions. I sent my father to photograph the store location images since the physical location is in Upstate New York, which is inaccessible for me at the moment. I also sent an email to the owners of Blair's Hot Sauces (a small company) and they were nice enough to send me a number of product shots that I could freely use to sell their products. All other icons, buttons, logo, texture elements, and imagery were completed using a combination of Photoshop, Illustrator, photography, and hand drawing. For the logo and quote on the index page I incorporated the font Zapfino, for which I purchased a commercial license. The other font, Caviar Dreams, which I used for the navigational elements, was available under a Creative Commons license that allowed for commercial use.

All the images were sized in Photoshop and then optimized using the "save for web and devices" option. Whenever possible the images were saved as JPEGs, however it was necessary to save some images as PNG-24 files in order to preserve transparency. While this increased the file sizes, in some cases it was necessary in order create an effective design (such as in the creation of the rollover buttons).

I created all the page elements within Photoshop, and then created a CSS file in Dreamweaver that incorporated appropriately placed divs to contain the separate elements. As for the look of the overall page, I incorporated some modern trends to make the page appear sleek. This included the use of rounded corners, which have come to be associated with Web 2.0 design. Far from wanting to invoke that computer feel, however, I balanced transparency, color scheme, and sharp edges with the rounded corners. I made the header fall short of the page edge in order have the background begin to blend with the active area of the page at the top, and added a round corner just at one edge. I had the hand drawn graphic spill over from the header to break up the potential boxiness of the page. I was looking for something sleek and sophisticated that still seemed rich, glamorous, and natural. Similarly, the drop shadows and rounded edges on the transparent boxes were intended to add depth and a stylish edge without screaming out "contemporary."

Preparing this site from scratch was both interesting and at times frustrating. There was a point when I somehow tweaked the code in a way that caused the website to develop serious issues; I was ultimately unable to recover and after many hours combing the code and reviewing discussion forums in an attempt to discover what I might have done, I simply rebuilt the template. This has made me acutely aware of the fact that I can do simple hand coding and rectify simplistic errors that crop up, but beyond that my skills need serious development. A class will be helpful in refining the basics, as will additional practice.

There were also some elements that proved to be beyond the scope of my knowledge. For instance, I understand that using graphical text poses accessibility and search engine optimization issues. I have read about several alternatives to utilize fancy fonts without creating image files, but decided against incorporating them. First, using SIFR in order to replace fonts seems to be quickly becoming obsolete. Using the CSS rule @fontface is preferable. This method, however, requires that the font carry a web license, which is not necessarily included in a commercial license. My Zapfino font could have been handled in this manner, in particular on the index page where a graphic font occupies a large area in the main content box. This graphic, while it has attached alt text, both bucks accessibility and adds unnecessary size to the page. However, as I read more about the @fontface rule I found a lot of information about it not working in Internet Explorer; the proposed workaround was simply beyond my current skill. I prefer Firefox as a browser, however many people do use IE, so I felt that ignoring such a display issue was problematic. When I have better honed my skills I will definitely rethink the text-graphic issue, but for now it had to suffice.

SEO and promotion:
Since ideally this website will help to attract customers to Anne's business, I tried to do some things to help with location. For starters, I made sure to include a good, concise Meta description in the code on every page. I also included the Meta keywords, although I remember that the MacDonald text and forums I have seen note that Google mostly ignores keywords because of past abuses. Even so, I added them just in case it will help (and I noticed while combing page sources that most web designers are still including them). I also made sure to include a link to the website from the blog page I created for Anne, as well as from Facebook. I added a link to the page from my own blog as well and put a web link when I created a location for the business on Google Places. I realize that these links fall far short of building a web presence, but it is a start. I attempted to make as much of the page as possible decipherable for web crawlers as well, and despite the exceptions I noted above, made sure heading text was handled in the page as a web-safe font instead of a graphic.

One other challenge I struggled with was the decision about whether to use a pop-up window for the Recipes button. The main issue was that I modified a Blogger blog template to look like the rest of the Taste the World web pages with the intention of using FTP to publish the blog to a page on the main website. Unfortunately I was unaware that Blogger stopped supporting this feature earlier this year. I have been unable, to date, to successfully point the logo on the blog page back to main website, as it defaults to linking to the Blogger page and as far as I can tell they remove the target attribute from the code view within the blogger application. I will eventually rebuild the template from scratch, as I know you can use unique CSS to control the behavior of your own pages, but have not had the time to invest in this project yet. As such, I felt many people would be confused by the similar look of the blog page, yet the lack of functionality of the logo linking back to the index. There is always the back button, but I believe that in not realizing they had left the main website, users might be frustrated by the inability to navigate.

I read a lot of opinions about the frustration a pop-up window causes viewers, but ultimately decided that it was necessary. The users can open the Recipes blog while the main ecommerce site remains open. This seems, for now, to be the best compromise. I also read some heated debates about the controversies between using target= blank or JavaScript to point to a new window. Target= blank is non-compliant with WC3 standards, however it also easy to drop into a site and for now proved to be the best solution… real world design.

Next up, future directions for the website.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Creating a website: Design and technical issues - Part 2

Design Elements:

Good design helps to communicate a message, rather than obscuring the contents of a website. As such, simplicity is a great design consideration. However, simple, clean design does not mean boring design. The following considerations were part of my process to create a layered and sophisticated look that would reflect the gourmet food theme of the website without adding a lot of clutter.

I created the design for this website with a few functional issues in mind. First, since it is a store website featuring products there are certain elements that users expect to find. I kept in mind that such visitors would be driven away from the site if they had to hunt too hard in order to locate these elements. The information about hours and store location is prominently placed on the contact page. Additionally, the address, phone, number and email address are footer elements that remain consistent on each page. Most importantly, however, I considered the ease of navigation. If users can't find something quickly, they simply move on; quickly equates to within one or two clicks.

The main navigation is situated on the right-hand side of the page, with clearly labeled categories of About, Shop, Contact, and Recipes appearing horizontally in the header. Simple rollover graphics help to indicate that these are links. There is no Home button, however the logo in the upper left is placed in a typical location and links to the index page from all other pages; this is so common that virtually all users would attempt to click there prior to looking for an actual home button (I certainly do). The addition of a button that actually read Home seemed redundant, and I feel that typical Internet users are past the point of needing such a text-based cue to return to the index page of a website. 

The secondary navigation is located on the right-hand side as well, with the main product categories listed vertically. I had initially planned to have this secondary navigation appear when users clicked the shop page, and remain on all tertiary category and product pages. Upon viewing dozens of ecommerce sites, however, I noted that almost all of the designs kept such product navigation intact on every page, including the home page. I decided that this was likely an ingrained expectation of viewers, and that removing the category buttons on the index, about, and contact pages would be aggravating to users.

I also considered whether cascading menus would be appropriate, since the main categories control navigation to particular products. Many sites do use such stacking features to obscure and reveal increasingly specific categories, but I decided in the end that the selection on Taste the World was too small to justify this feature. In fact, it would probably be aggravating to see stacked menus reveal only 3-4 choices, and would create extra clicking, which is a serious design faux pas. Instead, the shop page contains a descriptive category list, with each subheading linked to the appropriate category page. These links are the same as the navigational links on the right, so users can bypass the shop page altogether if desired, or click from within the main content area on the shop page, if that is what they are used to. They can return to any category page at any point within the site simply by using the secondary navigational menu.

The category pages offer thumbnails of products, as well as brief descriptions of the overall category. Ceramics and Accessories, therefore, contains images that link to individual product pages detailing specific price, use, and imagery of serving pieces. The category pages reflect another trend in ecommerce sites, which is to have a series of images on one or more pages that link to more detailed product pages. It is a logical organizational tool and one that is likely expected by most users. The individual product pages are also designed with typical expectations in mind. They include a sizable product shot, and when available and appropriate, alternate views. The alternate views are located as thumbnails below the main image, and are remote rollover buttons. Eventually, the site will include a functional shopping cart, so an add to cart button will be added to each product page; ample space has been left at the bottom to accommodate this future addition.

Beyond navigation, there are some other functional considerations. I used the color contrast analyzer available at Colors on the Web to check my text/background combinations to make sure they met accessibility standards, which they do. The only contrast area that was flagged as problematic was the dark logo on the red header banner. I could not find a color combination that worked in this case while still fitting within the site color palette, and simply made the assessment that the combination was contrasty enough for the majority of Internet users. I also made sure to label all images with alt text to ensure that text readers could effectively process what is a relatively graphics-heavy website. This includes the rollover buttons, which are an image that utilizes text. Beyond the logo, navigational buttons, and a decorative quote on the index page, all text is written in the Trebuchet font, which is approved for the web. Therefore, all text should render correctly in most browsers. Additionally, I increased the spacing between lines and made sure the smallest text was set to a 12pt size to increase the readability of the website contents. I also made the main content block light in color so I could use darker fonts in that area. I felt that light on dark fonts (which I like the look of) should be reserved for the side boxes where short snippets would be easy to read. I felt that the longer text sections required for the main content area might cause fatigue if viewers were expected to read light text on a dark background for such passages.

Balance, texture, and space:

The design is arranged using the rule of thirds, with the main content area occupying two-thirds of the horizontal space, and the navigation and announcement blocks occupy the remaining third. This gives the content area a greater presence on the page, and should pull a viewer's eye there first. Additionally, the use of burgundy gradients in the header and footer areas creates a sense of balance and unity as the repetition of the colors creates a mirror effect on the page. Additionally, textural elements add interest to the background and help to draw the viewer's eye across the page. First, the translucent coffee cups in the header bar both mirror the logo design and draw attention across the page towards the navigation bar. The graphic overlaps the background slightly in order to eliminate the boxy feel that might otherwise prevail on the page. The drawings of star anise seeds repeated on the left and right sides of the background help to draw the gaze up an down the page. They also create an asymmetrical balance because the same images are repeated on the left and right, but occupy different spatial areas. The smaller but more numerous left-hand seeds are placed closer to one another, while the larger and more flowing seed drawing on the right is surrounded by more open space. These size and space differences offset one another on the page. Both the coffee cups and spice images reference the store theme and products, and so are not just arbitrary textures.

As for space, some areas have been left open to create an uncluttered feel. There is also room for growth here as there is plenty of space to add a small shopping bag icon and/or search box under the header if the site becomes large enough to warrant such a feature. On the secondary pages there is a lower box in the right-hand column that is intended to contain important information or add graphical interest through images, depending on the page. The separate container box helps to set important sound bites of information or announcements apart from the main content area. As such, the grand opening announcement initially occupied this spot, and has now been replaced by an announcement of a new Bean Club promotion. This important area has been removed on the tertiary product pages, however, in order to make sure the space there remains uncluttered. This is due to the large graphics already in place on those pages; the open area under the navigation bar creates a good balance with the product space, and trying to feature additional content in that smaller box would compete with the main content on those pages.


Color is perhaps the most important element I considered in this design. I began with the intent of using burgundy because I felt it conveyed a certain richness. Jason Beaird backed up this assumption when he suggested that such deep red conveyed associations with fine living, but that such colors were also associated with power and hunger. This seemed perfect for a gourmet food store. I initially began with the intent of using an analogous color scheme, incorporating other colors that suggested associations with food—namely yellow and orange. After working with these colors, however, I could not find a combination of yellow, orange, and burgundy that appeared sophisticated (no matter how "burnt" the orange color I chose). It simply created a site with a harvest look.
I then decided to use the color palette generator at Colors on the Web to try out different looks. I began with my original burgundy (#80021F) and tried triadic and complementary color schemes. Interestingly, I would never have independently used a complementary color scheme with red and green because it sounds Christmas-like. However, the burgundy was offset by a rather rich green. I then tweaked the green so it was not quite exactly opposite, and ended up with a rich light olive color (#78752C). I then took my new color scheme to Adobe Kuler in order to generate a full palette for my website. There I added tints and shades of the original colors, as well as a rich brown that suggested the idea of coffee to me (an important element of the store). I ended up with a dark, medium, and light version of brown, burgundy, and olive green, and added an ivory color as the lightest tint (in lieu of white). This color palette reminded me of a winery, coffee house, or other sophisticated food topic, and therefore seemed perfect for Taste the World. (I also made my new color palette public, since I love the type of resource sharing that drives the Web.)

The actual website displays all the colors and ranges in the described palette. Every color is repeated somewhere in order to add unity to the elements on the page. The deep brown of the background, for instance, reappears in the hand drawings (which were re-colored in Photoshop to fit the overall palette). The ivory from the main content area is repeated in the main navigational headings, footer text, and rollover graphics. The dark burgundy is repeated in the text heading, and so forth. This all sounds very "matchy," but it makes for an overall unified look and ensures some weird background element doesn't suddenly compete with the site contents.

Next up I'll relay some of the issues and challenges I faced during the design.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Creating a website: Design and technical issues - Part 1

In the next few posts I will cover some of the design and technical issues associated with creating the Taste the World website. Reflection is key to improving design skills, so here goes with part one. 


The first consideration in any good web design has to be ensuring that it will communicate with the correct audience. Obviously a website is freely available for anyone on the Internet to view, however the purpose and content of the site does need to vary depending on the likely users. For instance, if I created an informational medical website it might have a sleek but authoritative design with a limited color palette. It is unlikely that I would include hand-drawn graphics or dancing animation since it would be difficult for users to take the site seriously. If I was designing a site advertising new art classes for kids, however, the hand-drawn graphics would be perfect, as would lots of bold primary colors. The two diverse audiences would call for two radically different designs. is a companion site to my aunt, Anne Backer's, newly opened gourmet food store. As such, the expected audience is visitors looking to read about or purchase gourmet foods and coffee; additionally, these visitors would presumably be looking for information about the store, including its history, ownership, mission, physical location, and hours. They might also be interested in viewing recipes that incorporate the available products as well as suggestions for hosting parties and events. All of these elements are included in the website and are intended to meet the expectations of this audience. Additionally, the informational sections are intended to draw in visitors that might be searching for information on topics such as roasted coffee or cheese pairings, but not necessarily products. These users would benefit from the information and as a bonus their interest in the gourmet products available might be piqued. Either way, it is clear that designing for a largely consumer audience requires attention to certain details common to many ecommerce web sites.

Tools & Methods:

Over the course of creating this website I utilized a number of different software packages, hardware, and freely available scripts. Following is a description of the major elements that went into producing the website sections.

I used a Nikon D5000 SLR camera fitted with a Nikkor 18-55mm lens for the product photography. I also utilized Nikkor close-up rings (+2, +2, +4 in various combinations) and a daylight-balancing filter on some of the shots. The design and graphics work was completed on a Macbook Pro with a 2.66 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo processor; the operating system was Mac OS X Snow Leopard, version 10.6.5. I used an Epson Perfection V600 Photo Scanner to scan the hand-drawn graphics incorporated into the web site.

In order to complete the logo design that appears in the upper left corner of the header I first drew the complete design on paper. After scanning I used Adobe Illustrator CS5 to create a scalable vector file and subsequently converted the file to PNG-24 format for use on the web. All of the graphics work, including cropping, retouching, image optimization, and the creation of rollover buttons was done using Adobe Photoshop CS4. The web site design was completed using Adobe Dreamweaver CS5. I designed the site from scratch by creating an external style sheet to govern all the major elements of each page.

Scripts and web resources:
The remote and resident rollover graphics were created using the scripts that Dreamweaver automatically generates when using the "behaviors" menu of the program to swap images. The rotating slideshows on the index and shop pages were added using a free script from the Dynamic Drive website. This script was simply changed to customize the images, size, and timing and inserted into the header section of the page; then some additional script was added to the div where the slideshow would appear. I also used a few Internet based tools to refine the design process, including the color creation and analysis tools at Adobe Kuler and Colors on the Web, and the link checker at the WC3 website. I also used the Google map generator at; this was actually easier to use than the official Google version and allowed a slightly incorrect marker placement to be corrected prior to acquiring the code. It was not possible in the Google Maps application to move the marker (which was placed across the river on East First Street instead of West First Street).

Web host and domain name:
The website is hosted by GoDaddy, and incorporates an SSL certificate, which will be useful for future development of site elements, such as functional ecommerce. I advised Anne to purchase a package with SSL certificate (so no non-secure messages pop up when a shopping cart grabs the logo), domain name, and business hosting. Her chosen domain name is a little long, but was the best of the available choices that included her full store name. I felt the inclusion of the full "Taste the World" name was not imperative, but Anne felt that the unaltered name was important. I did convince her to avoid uncommon extensions, even though the original title was available. For instance,, .mobi, .us, and .me were available. Instead, the addition of Online to her title allowed for a .com extension. She did also purchase, which I have set to forward to her main .com website.

Next time I'll talk about the design choices I made, including the color palette, textures, spacing, and balance.

14.1 Final web design

The structure is in place for the Taste the World website. It looks good, and incorporates room to grow. As products are added to the inventory they can be added to the website easily. The next step, when my aunt is ready, is to incorporate ecommerce into the site. Right now it features products and information, but you can't buy directly from the website. I am waiting for Anne to set up an account, however, in order to proceed with that phase of the project. I told her that I think PayPal will be the best route in this case.

Check out the website here:

In my next few posts I will talk about some of the design particulars. It bears noting here that I learned a tremendous amount through the production of this site, however I feel that a class in coding is the next step. I can certainly hand-code something simple, but when it comes to unearthing pervasive problems my success rate has been somewhat lower. I need to rectify this in order to really move forward with my designs. Tutorials have been helpful, but a class will really bring things together for me. I might have to push that off to the summer though. The timing between break and the spring semester just won't work, and the upcoming USF semester is going to be packed. Meanwhile, I will keep tweaking the site and posting about design.

And finally, lessons learned:
  • Keep it simple! Not boring, but definitely streamlined and clutter-free.
  • Real world design sometimes requires workarounds. 
  • Getting a better grasp on the particulars of CSS and XHTML will be a necessary addition to my skillset.
  • Sometimes if it can't be figured out, cut your losses and rebuild! I "learn" this one over and over...  

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

13.1 Form and function clashes

I would like to discuss a little design and accessibility quibble I have, once again. Somehow I accidentally deleted the code from my CSS that overrides the focus box that appears on visited links in Firefox. Of course I knew it was a simple fix, but just couldn't remember what it was so I had to dig around on the Internet looking for the answer. Since I couldn't remember what the box was officially called I was stuck searching for "dotted lines in Firefox," "borders on links in Firefox," etc. This search returned lots of forums that described setting images to have a zero border and so forth, which meant I had to comb many of those forums before I found my answer. This process led me to focus on the aforementioned design quibble.

What was striking about this search was the large number of people that responded to the forum inquiries about losing the dotted lines (who fully understood the border was a feature of Firefox) by stating there was a javascript workaround or some code that could tell Firefox to override the focus box, but then wouldn't tell how to do it because it was considered "poor practice."

From David on Adobe forums:
"There are JavaScript techniques for removing focus rectangles, but they are considered very bad practice, and go against the accessibility requirements for websites laid down by most governments."

When later prompted he added:
"As for the focus rectangles, they're deliberately visible. If you were disabled, you would want them to be as visible as possible. If you think they destroy the look of your site, perhaps it's time to rethink your design."

Newsgroup_user added:
"I get it most of the time with most browsers, I came to terms with it about 8 years ago, its just one of those things."

These types of responses were relatively prevalent, and here is my issue. I don't necessarily disagree with the usage of those focus boxes accessibility is a good thing. However, I believe many users do find them annoying, yet would not take the time to disable them in the browser settings. I certainly haven't bothered and I actually know how to do it. So, we are forcing an annoying element on Firefox users, many of whom will assume the web designer intended the focus box as part of the page. How is this different than any other annoying element, such as overuse of animation? Most users that don't require the functionality of the focus boxes will not understand them to be useful or automatic and therefore will not excuse the element as being out of the designer's control.

That leads me to the next point, which is that bad practice or not, most designers are forcing Firefox to override the focus boxes. I don't have the default setting turned off, I use Firefox all the time, and yet I rarely encounter the dreaded dots. I also take issue with the arrogance of stating that if the focus boxes ruin a design the design must be poor to begin with. I don't know of any way to change the color, and that bright blue "link" hue is jarring. If a designer has spent considerable time crafting a color palette that blue just might look very wrong against the page, as it does on mine. It is unfair to say we should just get over it. In fact, I would have much less of an issue with the focus box if you could change the color to something that would be contrasty enough, yet still fit the look of the page.

I also feel that pointing out that you know how to change the effect, but won't divulge the technique because you are "saving" someone from making an error is arrogant. Don't weigh in, or else give the information with the caveat that you believe it should not be used. I might also mention here that Firefox could make the focus box feature default to invisible. Then nobody would bother overriding it since only people that wanted to see the focus box would turn it on. Right now designers are being forced to choose between all or none, which is totally unnecessary. All of that said, there are valid reasons for wanting to control the look of web designs. If I am to be faulted for bad choices by using hot pink, yellow, orange, purple, and powder blue on a page, why would it suddenly be fine to have a bright blue dotted border appear around elements on a page that uses only earth tones, or black, white, and gray? Design choices matter as much as functionality. Form is equal to function in my view (sorry Louis Sullivan, but Modernist ideology is dead) and sometimes "functional" rules get in the way of good communication through aesthetic design, which in itself creates a usage issue.

All of this aside, I eventually did find the rule: a { -moz-outline: none 0; outline: none 0; } and my website looks much better for having put it to good use.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

12.1 Web tutorials

Today I am looking at Smart Webby, which is a design guide web site that has lots of free tutorials. More importantly, the tutorials are written at a very basic level so anyone can follow them; to this end, all web terms are defined at the beginning of the articles so that novices can find what they are looking for without being entirely familiar with the lingo. The articles state that familiarity with the software will help, but honestly they are so clear I feel even a complete beginner can follow along.

The choice of tutorials includes a surprising variety, from Dreamweaver to Flash and Fireworks. Within each category the options are further refined to include specific functions, such as creating rollovers and pop-up windows. I have to admit, I didn't realize that Dreamweaver would write the code for the latter--I thought that was definitely a feature you had to manually enter. Other particularly useful files include the tips lists for effective navigation and layouts. For example, the point is made in the former that too many links will confuse and overwhelm a visitor and therefore extra (secondary) links should be stored in drop-down menus. They also make the point that if you want to remain flexible in your ability to add additional links that drop-down menus are the best way to do this. Truthfully, I wish I had thought more about that point in my own web design. I have an airtight arrangement for my links that looks good, but there is absolutely no room for additional categories later on. This is something I may need to eventually consider as it is likely that new products might demand new categories. For now though, the navigation will stand.

As for the other tips, clean layout, optimum load time, scalability, and compatibility with multiple browsers make sense. As for minimizing graphics, I have mixed feelings. I totally agree that clip art, useless animations, and extra non content-related garbage can go. I also feel, however, that pictures can illustrate many good ideas and that well-placed scripts such as unobtrusive slideshows, forms, etc. are some of what can give your site personality. Slower running, perhaps, but that's where optimizing the code and graphics (another recommendation from the list) can help.

As for the Smart Webby site, it looks pretty good. The text is very large with ample line spacing, which makes it quite easy to read. This is good because it makes it likely users will stick around to view several tutorials. Of course, you could argue that the size is overkill, as a smaller version would be alright as well. Then again, I have great eyesight… The page is also very colorful and rather fun, but not to an obnoxious level. The textures (clouds and vines with flowers) are whimsical and align perfectly with the judiciously placed rainbow background colors. The repetition of those colors in the navigation, account, and news boxes helps tie the page elements together. Even the black top navigation bar, which originally I thought might be out of place, is echoed in the footer. Bottom line, balance and repetition are key to making all the disparate elements on this page gel in a professional manner; it does this, while still maintaining a sense of whimsy and fun, which are nice elements to take the scary out of web design topics.

Check out Smart Webby here:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

11.2 Web site reviews

This week I will discuss some web sites that offer listings of good designs that are out there. I love these types of "best of" lists because they really do take the work out of combing the web for great inspirations. An added bonus is that many of the sites listed have links to other great resources (designers really do take sharing quality examples seriously). The websites featured here are all pulled from the blog "27 Best Places You Should Visit To Get Incredible Web Design Inspiration!" posted by Smashing Apps.

To visit this post directly, go to:

One Page Love:
This web site contains a compilation of web sites that cleverly contain all the navigation and information on a single page. Some of these pages are beautiful, such as the Heart's Cry, Inc. page, which uses a yellow text box that unfurls as you click links. This navigation is sleek and organized and actually makes multi-page sites seem a little clunky. Of course, it depends on the amount of information that needs to be presented, so specific topic pages work great in this format--multiple product or topic pages would get unwieldy. Some of the sites mentioned by One Page Love seem to be nice page designs that are actually not really self-contained. For example, the Rei das Praias site may be one page, but it really functions more as a home page with links to different but related company websites. Each of these opens a full website that navigates through various pages. Even so, most of the featured pages do fit the criteria for true one-page navigation.

The design of One Page Love is conducive to browsing the featured websites. Like many similar compilation sites, it uses a very minimal design that does not compete with the contents. In this case the black background and white text are highlighted with just a few splashes of hot pink in the logo, footer, and links. These pops of color are used judiciously and therefore add a nice touch without becoming annoying. The website thumbnails are large so it is easy to see the contents of the pages prior to clicking, which is important for navigation; it is easy to bypass those that look uninteresting without the hassle of clicking. One feature that I like, although it is controversial in the web world, is that the links open in new tabs. This saves navigating back to the site, and mimics the manner in which I normally choose to browse anyway. I don't think this is uncommon, and yet I was reading a blog the other day that chastised the practice of forcing a new window--ever. Apparently an even greater sin is using a target= blank attribute to do so, which I noticed this website employs. All the code wars and objections aside (I don't really care if javascript or target= blank makes it work), I think this type of browsing works well.

One last note, I like that this website includes dates next to some of the thumbnails. I'm not certain why all of the submissions are not dated, but the inclusion of at least some dates is essential. For instance, when I see November 15, 2010 listed next to the latest feature I can tell the website is still active. This is important since such sites run a real risk of seeming static.

Check out One Page Love here:

Unmatched Style:
This website has much more content than One Page Love since the focus here is on a variety of web sites as well as other resources, interviews, etc. The focus on quality web site designs remains central though (literally), as it occupies the middle column of the page. Organization on this site is key as it helps to avoid information overload. The other categories are neatly defined and contained in logical columns, with headers like news, interviews, and resources. It is immediately obvious that this website is vibrant and active, as evidenced by a news section that contains the  latest highlights (this in turn links to an archive area). Here again, knowing the web site is updated makes it more likely users will return.

The design of this website is clean, with the contents creating all the page decor, so to speak. A few bright red headlines and buttons add interest, but otherwise the slate colored header and footer contrast with a white background. This lack of "design" functions perfectly for this web site, however, because it leaves the contents as the only focus. Adding any other page elements would be distracting given the vast amounts of information presented. It is actually hard to pull off an information-rich yet uncluttered look, and in that regard this site is extremely successful.     

Check it out here:

CSS Creme: Best web flavors:
This website, like Unmatched Style, showcases a three-column design that allows a lot of information to occupy the home page. This page has more design elements and yet it manages to stay uncluttered as well. The color scheme of light brown and turquoise is pleasing and a little trendy, and it  because it has a minimal amount of texture it is interesting without competing with page contents. The color scheme is carried through by the use of turquoise text in the main white content area.

The navigational structure on this website is an important element in making it user-friendly. The amount of information could be daunting, but it is neatly organized into a series of sub-navigation menus. The resources  menu on the left stays consistent on almost every page, while a new menu specific to a broader category (fonts, tutorials, etc.) opens below it on each section page. This helps to refine the selection within a category so users can easily find only Photoshop tutorials or CSS tutorials, and so forth. An interesting note, you can peruse featured designs by color; clicking a color swatch reveals websites that use a predominate color, such as blue or purple, in the layout. This is a nice feature that I have seen in only a few other places, and is one that could help provide inspiration when you have a color for a web design but don't know what to do with it.

One thing that I don't like about this site is the large gradient-filled rectangle in the center of the header. It is empty of any content and it appears that something didn't load there. If it is intentionally placed it is a bad design choice because it simultaneously non-functional and covers up other header elements like wood grain and paint splotches. And while it is only on element on an otherwise nicely designed page, the prominent placement really makes the entire site look a bit unprofessional.

Check out CSS Creme here:

Unique CSS:
This web site provides a twist on the "best of" concept by featuring only four websites per month, the best of which is determined by user votes. I like this concept because it involves the web community while still maintaining a high level of design credibility. This is accomplished because judges select the four finalists from a pool of websites that have been submitted by designers. They can ensure that the public, in turn, is only able to select a favorite from four quality designs. This avoids the problem of the public choosing a poorly designed site from an uncurated pool.

What I really like about this web site is the curation aspect. Rather than continue to showcase all the finalists from each month, only the winner's site is featured. This creates a truly curated selection of designs and adds some clout (or bragging rights, as the website points out) to actually winning. Overall the featured websites did indeed live up to the juried mission of Unique CSS. They were different and exciting, embracing a variety of design looks, but all worth perusing. Featured winning web sites extend back to 2008.

As for the design of the Unique CSS website, I like it less than I do their  mission. It's not confusing or cluttered, but it isn't quite clean either. It's easy to navigate, but somehow the design just seems blah. This is a bit counterintuitive, but perhaps stripping away a few elements would actually make it more engaging. The design would have a minimalist identity. Right now it doesn't have any identity, since it is neither playful or purposely stripped down. It is simply there, without adding too much clutter but with a few too many elements to be considered purposefully pared down. First, the winner stamp needs to go--it's cheesy. Second, the alternating white and gray boxes that separate list elements on the home page could be eliminated. Yes the alternation differentiates the items, but they are short enough on their own that it isn't necessary. The boxes also look like elements in a bad Word table or Excel spreadsheet. I also dislike the white header. It is not handled in a purposeful manner so it looks a little unfinished. Perhaps a white-on-white texture would help there with adding the element of color.

The bottom line is that the intent of Unique CSS is great. The web site contains beautiful web design examples and some good information. The design, however, interferes with the enjoyment of the contents.  

Check out Unique CSS here:

Cool Home Pages:
Interestingly, this website has an awful home page. The predominant colors are blue, orange, and white, and the overall design looks something like the old Reverse Phonebook website. Seriously. My point is that this design is generic in a way that screams basic template instead of sophisticated minimalism. Amazingly, there is a design academy section on Cool Home Pages that discusses the use of minimal color palettes. It reads:

"Websites like, have used limited color space and yet look sharp, even Cool Home Pages mainly uses 2 colors, Orange and Blue."

While I agree with the sentiment, I think holding up this page as an example of appropriate color use is egregious. It is simply unsophisticated and, quite frankly, takes away from the contents of the site.

The recommended websites are pretty good, depending on the section. Clicking on "very clean" yields nice choices, as does the "low-bandwith" category. Even so, I have seen more questionable choices here than on other similar web sites. For instance, the "fun" category has some nice choices, but also a lot of garbage. I have seen better interactive and quirky sites featured elsewhere. Sure, this somewhat subjective, but really good sites tend to adhere to some basic design principles that quite a few of these designs lack. There are some duplicate postings in the same categories as well, which occasionally wind up next to one another (see screen bites in "fun").

This site does feature some good content, but not really the best stuff out there. It is worth a look, but ultimately other similar sites are just better, easier to look at resources.

Checkout Cool Home Pages here: