Archive for March, 2012

When I first decided to write book reviews on this blog, Letting Go of the Words by Ginny Redish was the first book I chose to read. I kept hearing about it over the course of my studies (I think it had been required reading in another class), and only good things. Of course, life and schoolwork intervene as they always do, and it took me this long to get through it. It’s not a particularly long book, but an extremely dense one: it contains not a word that does not have good reason to be there. We can glean that the author is adept at applying her own advice, “letting go of the words” that do not serve a purpose, in order to make room for the many that do.

I actually examined this book in three different formats: the Kindle book on the iPhone app, the Kindle book on the iPad, and the physical copy of the book. I was a first-generation Kindle owner, but the device pooped out on me early on, and I was disappointed enough not to invest in another. From that time on I did most of my reading on the iPhone app, which worked out quite well for me. So that’s how I got this book. I have to say, at $30, it was a bit of an investment for an ebook, but considering that the paperback is $50, it was enough of a discount to make it seem worthwhile, especially since I generally prefer electronic reading.

The problem is that this book was full of highly detailed images that were just not conveniently viewed on the app. There are lots of samples of web pages, with their tiny print you’re supposed to read, and the callouts that comment on them, and cartoons talking with word bubbles. These were all very difficult to read on that tiny screen. Plus, the steps added by the zooming in process: tap the picture to select it, fingers out to enlarge it, drag it around to read different parts of it, tap the “x” to deselect the picture and go back to reading. Sure, it’s a simple enough process. But almost every page of this 350-page book contains such an image, so the extra time spent tapping and dragging adds up.

I decided that the book was so jam-packed and visual that my review would be best served by perusing the physical copy, so I picked it up from the local community college library. THEN, I got an iPad for my birthday [does iPad happy dance], so I was able to view it on the Kindle app there as well.

Verdict: you definitely want the hard copy of this book. It is just so image-laden, well-organized, and browsable. Plus, like most books about document design (which this one is, to an extent), it is a really well-designed document. The parts that are inconvenient and difficult to read on the electronic version are well-laid out and enjoyable to browse in the print.

Now for the content.

For the most part, this is a book that I wish other people read. A lot of it is, to me, where I am in life right now, common sense. Maybe this is generational. I’m in my early thirties–no Spring chicken, but younger than a lot of the people who found themselves trying to write web content when this book was written (2007 is rather recent, but it’s an eon in technology years). Maybe it’s technological–I’m one of those tech-savvy people who uses the internet for everything, so I’ve honed a taste for what’s good and bad in web writing. Maybe it’s my career path: I’m a technical writing major, so obviously I have a good idea of organizing and simplifying information.

But man, can I think of plenty of sites where I wish the authors had read this book. If you are not a writer or information designer, and you find yourself writing web content, whether for your own website, your company’s, or a client’s, please please please read this book. You will be so glad you did, and more importantly, so will your readers.

This book contains a LOT of information. Some of it is pretty common knowledge. Don’t write in all caps, people. Some of it is new. How to write web-based press releases? Yes please!! Some of it I agree with wholeheartedly. DO NOT MAKE ME SIT THROUGH A FLASH ANIMATION TO FIND OUT WHAT TIME YOUR RESTAURANT OPENS. Some of it I do not. Seriously, if you put cardboard cut-outs of our customers’ “personas” in the meeting room, I am going to laugh my ass off. But there is such a wide variety of topics and chapters that it’s impossible not to learn a few things, whoever you are.

I almost hesitate to get into specifics about this book. THERE ARE SO MANY SPECIFICS. But I’ll go ahead and give a sampling.

  • I know your 11th grade English teacher wouldn’t let you use “I” and “you” in your papers, but this is not that class. Refer to your visitors as “you.”
  • Hyperlinks should make sense. “Click here” is not helpful.
  • Blind people read the internet, too. Accommodate them.
  • No giant “walls” of text, please. Break it up. Short paragraphs, lists, tables.
  • Put important information at the top. A lot of people are just not going to scroll down.

 

The entire book centers on the idea that users bail easily. Huge blocks of text? Bail. Can’t find the information they want? Bye bye. PDF where they want a web page? Peace out. Even if your visitors don’t cut and run, you don’t want them frustrated or annoyed. Just like a store manager wants happy, smiling customers, a web designer and/or author wants happy web surfers.

Even though I feel a lot of the information in this book was just review for me, I’d recommend it to pretty much anyone who has to do some web writing. I think web designers could really use this, as could those of us who run our own business websites. There is plenty to absorb here.

Image from goodreads.com.

One of my top priorities software-wise is to learn InDesign. It’s maybe not the top-used tool among technical communicators, but many do use it, and since I write for magazines I thought it would help me get copy editing work. Plus, I figured getting to know one of the Adobe Creative Suite programs would help with the others.

I finally invested in a lynda.com membership, and went through the entire “Up and Running with InDesign” tutorial. Once I got through the whole thing, I wanted to practice my skills on my own project, but I didn’t really have anything to work on. So I just sort of randomly made up a “family newsletter.”

If you’ve done the tutorial, you’ll see different skills I used, like the drop caps and the “logo” building.

Anyways, it’s just a minor little project full of inside jokes, but I thought you might like to see what I managed to learn from the tutorial!

Get the pdf here!

“I get kind of obsessed with things.”

-Michael C. Place

Describing this movie by saying “Helvetica is not just a film about a font, but also about _____________” seems cringingly obvious. But it’s hard to find a way around doing so, so I’m gonna go for it. Helvetica is not just a film about a font, but also about the people who are fascinated by it.

This movie was suggested to me in a timely manner by a friend of mine who works at an Art Museum. I was talking about how I was getting into information design, and she told me about the movie and said it sounded like something I would like. Just a few weeks later, we hit our unit on typography in Reading Theory and Document Design class. The moment had presented itself: I bought Helvetica on iTunes.

Typeography is a pretty new thing to me. I mean, it’s not entirely new to any of us who grew up with computers with word processing software that let you pick your own font. But actually analyzing typeface and typeface choices, beyond “mixing too many fonts in the same document looks amateurish,” is new to me. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned since peeking into the world of typography, it’s that there is an astounding number of typography nerds in the world. And I don’t mean the people who know the difference between serifs and sans serifs–I mean people who have obstinate opinions on things like x-heights and descenders, and feel that fonts are political choices.

This movie is about these people. People who design typefaces, and obsess over them. They all have different work styles, and different opinions about Helvetica, but they share one trait in common: They not only pay attention to details, but they are passionate about them. They fixate on them. They are able to find universes in what the rest of us consider minutiae.

Watching this movie was fun for me as a (former) New Yorker, because so many of the “on the street” shots of Helvetica were familiar to me, from subway signage to Times Square billboards. Having specific examples of “see how much Helvetica there is that you never noticed?” that actually applied directly to me was eye-opening.

However, the movie didn’t go specifically into how Helvetica was constructed. (You would think a feature length film about a font would have time to break it down for us. Do they assume anyone watching this is already enough of a geek that they know already?) So I’m still not 100% sure when I’m looking at it, or when I’m looking at a similar sans-serif. So I’m catching myself walking down the street and tuning my vision to signage, exclaiming not “Ooh, Helvetica!” but “Ooh, that might be Helvetica! Or something like it!”

You may assume that people who fixate on a topic that the man on the street might consider “bland” and “unimportant” would be rather dull to talk to. Quite the contrary! The bread and butter of this film are interviews with extremely varied and lively characters. I didn’t even wait until the film was over before finding and following Erik Spiekermann on Twitter. The one thing that these people have in common is that they are all artists, and all obsessive (as the above quote from Michael Place, one of the interview subjects, demonstrates).

This film was a good sort of introduction to the world of typography for someone like me who understands a little bit about what makes fonts differ from one another, but not about why people get so worked about about it. You get a little glimpse into why it matters to the people it matters to, and maybe just a hint of why it should matter to you, too.

Purchase Helvetica here.

One of my classes this semester is ebook creation, and our latest assignment was to make a manual (because this is a technical writing program). The finished product had to include a cover, images, and lists. I didn’t really have anything to write a manual for, so I asked on Twitter if anyone had anything they needed me to write a manual for. (We didn’t actually have to write one from scratch; I think most people just reformatted existing documents.) One of my friends said, “Life.” So I said, “OK!”

I pondered how to accomplish this without sounding like one of those “Everything I learned in life I learned in Kindergarten” posters from the 80’s. After a little reflection, I came up with the following.

You can download the epub of the ebook here. (“Ebook” is a generous term; it’s only a couple of pages, more like an “epamphlet.”) It’s free. An epub i is viewable with Adobe Digital Editions or Calibre, both of which are free downloads.

You can download the mobi of the ebook here. This one is for Kindle. The assignment was to create an ebup, not a mobi. But I think more people tend to read stuff on Kindle (also a free download), so I also made a mobi for you. I had to do the formatting manually, because I can’t figure out any way to get Jutoh to read any of my style sheets.

Hope you enjoy my little book!