Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Need for Web Standards

Tell Me I'm Dreaming

I had a disturbing dream the other night - Microsoft creates a web browser that actually adheres to web standards. Much to my surprise, it wasn't a dream; Internet Explorer supporting web standards is finally a reality.

Among the many things Internet Explorer did not support before, here is a list of the ones that have special meaning to me as a web developer:

  • min-height
  • :hover on all elements
  • alpha-transparent PNGs
  • proper box model

Standards are Good

Min-height allows me to make sure content blocks always stay at a minimum height. This is to prevent the undesirable look of uneven columns that don't line up at the bottom. This typically happens when the main content column is much shorter than the other columns. It looks unprofessional when you have a long menu column and a much shorter content column, especially if the background graphic doesn't line up at the bottom. Maybe it's just me but I like it when things line up neatly.

Hover on all elements means no more javascript hacks to get CSS menus working properly. This is a godsend because CSS menus, when combined with list elements, are lightweight and easy to maintain. Who needs those fancy animated menus anyways? Menus should be instantly accessible, without needless animations that don't really serve any purpose.

Alpha-transparent PNGs can be a huge time-saver. This is especially true when your design consists of shadows and transparent gradients. For example, typically you would have to matte the background color ( or much worse, a background texture ) to the transparent image you are cutting out. Well now that IE officially supports full alpha-blended PNGs, you can simply switch off any background layers in Photoshop and save your images as is, complete with drop shadows and everything. You never have to worry about background matting again.

Caution must be taken when using lots of alpha-transparent PNGs, as they result in much bigger file sizes than their brethren.

Another really cool advantage with alpha-transparent PNGs is where menus are concerned. Nicer looking menus usually have gradient or textured backgrounds. Traditionally, menu text is merged with the background it is situated on. This made it somewhat laborious and inflexible whenever you wanted to edit or create new items. Using transparent PNGs, all you need to save is the text of the menu item on a transparent background. This can be placed over any background with a seamless effect. Any time you need to make an edit to your spiffy graphic-based menu, all you need to edit is the text itself and save the PNG. Very cool!

At long last, IE finally supports the proper box model. The box model is simply a web construct that determines how the dimensions of containers are determined by the browser. The correct box model states that the full width of a container is equal to the width + padding + margin. IE's model stated that full width = width - padding - margin. I remember struggling with this many times, until I finally realized that STRICT mode temporarily solves the problem.

You still would have to test your site in the major browsers just to make sure your padding and margins look the same across the board.

Now that IE officially supports the correct box model, no more guessing on what to pad and what not to pad. Finally!

The Point of It All

The moral of this story is that standards are always a good thing. As far as web development goes, they are a very good thing. Web standards promote better design, leaner code, and more importantly, a consistent user experience. As a developer you worry more about how to turn an awesome design into a functional site, and less about how to make the design work in non-standards compliant browsers. In the end, time and money is both saved, and users benefit from a more compelling web experience.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why We Don't Enter

Clients sometimes ask, "Why don't you enter this into an advertising awards competition?" And, quite frankly, it's a good question, one that needs answering.

So, here it is - Francomedia's official stance on advertising awards:

First, let me state that our only purpose, the reason clients hire us in the first place, is to sell their product or service. As a creative agency, we do this through a multitude of different ways. We create advertising and marketing programs, build brands, design offers, create packaging and advertise - all to entice the consumer to buy more of our clients' goods or services.

Don't forget, we do need to be creative in order to accomplish this goal. Advertising awards have been set up to 'reward' this creative thinking, further the industry and fuel future creative thought. Sounds good, don't it?

Here's where things break down though.

Advertising awards are judged on creativity alone not results and that's where we have a problem.

We are in the business of results, most often, we do this through creativity. You see, creativity is just a tool that we use to accomplish the goal. Currently, advertising awards reward the use of this tool, but it's measured on intangibles and is very subjective. Our position is that advertising awards should be based on results.

For us to approach a job with the focus on winning an award, it detracts from the purpose of why we were hired in the first place. And that's not good for anyone.

Does this mean advertising shouldn't be creative? Hell no, advertising should be creative, it has to be if it's going to reach the consumer, but not just to be creative for creatives' sake, it has to be purpose oriented.

So, to our customers that are reading this... sleep tight, knowing that we've got your interests at heart, not ours. And, that's why we don't enter client work into advertising award contests... not until they measure on results, that is.

Now, this doesn't mean we won't flex our own creative muscles from time to time and enter some of our own materials in advertising or creative awards.

In the case of our own materials, awards can be construed as the results.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Difference

I want to clear up a minor discrepancy in advertising vernacular.

There often times is confusion around the terms consumer and customer. Now, it's not a big deal to most people. But in our line of work, it means completely different things - and if you were to ask for a campaign to target one, but meant the other - you would not be happy with the result.

So, to clear things up:

Consumer: These are people with money. They have the potential to be a customer, they may have even heard of you, but they have not contacted or had any business dealings with you.

Customer: These are people that give you money. They are part of the consumer base, they are the ones you have contact and business dealings with.

OK, now that we've cleared that up, let's get back to focusing our creative energies onto things that turn consumers into customers.

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Talent Pool

For the last 6 to 8 months, we have had a practicum student working with us from the SAIT New Media Production and Design program. It's a good program, in fact we stole one of their best and brightest a few years back - he's now a mainstay at Francomedia and produces some of our best creative.

As luck would have it, we have another SAIT graduate, from the Computer Sciences side of things and he continues to amaze us with his ability to do anything thrown at him.

SAIT produces some all-star talent and this year is no different, our practicum student has helped us out on quite a number of projects, was quick to learn and very efficient.

Earlier this month, the students of the New Media program at SAIT put on their Student Showcase - a demonstration of their work. It's a wine and cheese gathering with lots of young talent waiting to be picked up by local businesses. This is the first time I attended the event, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

I was impressed with the diverse nature of the work and it was cool to see so much promise and prospect in one room - who knows where these kids will end up, maybe running shops like ours one day.

The displays were amateur and hand made, and I don't mean that in a negative way at all - they were well thought out and good by any standard. When you're in school and you have limited resources you do what you can, and what they put together was great. It just wasn't like walking through CES, if it was I would have been very intimidated. A $50,000 booth isn't necessary when looking at potential, you can see it in their enthusiasm, in their pride of work and in their portfolios.

On Wednesday, we learned that our practicum student, Annky Yu, won the best of show this year at the Student Showcase. Holding true to what I've always believed; we attract top talent. Congratulations to Annky!

When you see hard work pay off through a win like that, it's very rewarding - our team has hit many home runs, unfortunately the majority of the time nobody's keeping score. At least, we think nobody is. Truth be told, our clients know the score which is why they keep coming back for more.

It's great to be surrounded by such a deep pool of talent. And, believe me, there's no shallow end at Francomedia.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

IE8 Released!

On March 19th, the latest version of Microsoft Internet Exploder was released!

Why am I excited about this? Because, this is the first browser that Microsoft has released that will conform to the internet standards set forth last century. And, it means their browsers will work seamlessly with new web technologies we employ on web sites we design.

So, do I expect the new browser to be better than Firefox or Safari? I don't care really, I hope they've made some improvements though. They'd have a hard time releasing anything worse than Internet Explorer 6 (IE6), it was flakey at best and, a security nightmare at worse. Released in 2001, there are still many companies that use this antique as their everyday browser and wonder why theirs and many other sites don't work properly.

What this means to web site design firms everywhere, like Francomedia, is that we no longer have to design sites to work on IE6. We can build web sites, the way they are supposed to work and only have to do it once, not waste countless hours trying to rig it to work in IE6 as well as current browsers.

Going forward, if you want a site to work in IE6, you will have to specify this in the scope of work and this work will be quoted separately. I hope nobody really asks for this. The alternative work-around is of course having browser detection on the site that informs site visitors that they are welcome to step out of the stone age and download the new browser at no cost - this work-around takes very little time and we will offer it for free to any client that is building their site with us until the end of the year.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not bitter - we made a hell of a lot of money by having to ensure that web sites work on IE6... but it was neither fun nor easy. And, something I'm glad we're done with, in fact, everyone involved in web has got to be happy about this.

If you are reading this blog using IE6, go and get IE8 NOW! Or, seeing as you do have a choice, download Firefox, Safari and IE8 - try them out and see which you like best.

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