Single Quickest Way To Improve Your Writing, If You Can Find It

I won’t cover-up the lede with prologue: the quickest way to improve your writing is by finding your own voice.

Ah. Notice how I didn’t tell you it was the easiest thing to do? And I didn’t mention exactly what that meant — even though most of us have heard the advice, we probably haven’t understood it. With the help of my favorite book on writing, below I’ll give you three ways to find your own writing voice.

In a clever piece about losing his once forceful voice to a battle with esophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens describes the advice an editor gave him about a well argued, but boring piece: write “more like the way that you talk.” Hitchens can talk. He’s a throwback to a time when intellectuals had public debates about the issues of the times. Not only were there smart people having a public dialog, but they could talk, like, in coherent, logically structured sentences. Hitchens:

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions.

Since most of us don’t speak very well, it’s a tough leap to grasp onto what finding our own writing voice means, but I’ll make an attempt, with the help of John R. Trimble. He’s the author of one of the most useful, slim, books about writing: Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. Trimble doesn’t make this argument, but based on his words, here are 3 ways to find your own writing voice:

  1. Write to server people, not impress them. We don’t often speak in a style to impress people, so don’t do it when you write.
  2. Be lucid. When we’re talking the object isn’t to obscure our true meaning (unless you’re Donald Rumsfeld), it’s to communicate our thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Work to be lucid.
  3. “Have something to say that’s worth their attention.” If part of finding our own writing voice is being more like we (ideally) speak, then we should write something that’s worth people’s attention.

What makes your writing sound more like you?

Photo by chuckthewriter and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

If You Don’t Fix This WordPress Problem Now, You’ll Hate Yourself Later

In 2006, Darren Rowse at the ProBlogger site wrote that more than 200,000 people were still using the default page text that appears when a WordPress blog is first installed. Do you know the words I’m talking about?

“This is an example of a WordPress page, you could edit this to put information about yourself or your site so readers know where you are coming from. You can create as many pages like this one or sub-pages as you like and manage all of your content inside of WordPress.”

That was in 2006. Today a Google search will pull more than 13 million results for those words. Sad. On my search, on the first page of results, I found a friend’s site listed. I’m embarrassed enough for them, it’s hard to mention what I found.

Part of the problem is that when people start their blogs, write new pages, then never delete the default page that’s created at installation. One other issue seems to be that some people don’t understand the difference between a page and a post, then write posts that should be pages, and never look at the Pages administration tab to delete the default page.

If you’ve installed a WordPress blog lately, double check your default page situation. Please.

Without Breaking The Bank, Local Businesses Can Drive Customers Using Discounts via Twitter Lists

This is a proposal for an experiment in Western Massachusetts to start our own “Twitter-pon” list. Most small businesses using Groupon don’t fair well, at the end of the day. But there’s a way around it: start a Twitter list of local businesses that offer discounts directly to customers. Here’s the logic and details:

I don’t get Groupon. Or LivingSocial, or whatever the next location-based couponing site is going to be. And there will be others. Because that business has such a low barrier to entry and the profit margins are so high, if you’ve got $50-100k anyone can do it. It’s not brain surgery.

Try Googling “groupon scam” or “groupon ripoff” and read the stories. They’re not hard to find. For consumers it’s mostly a good deal, but they’re not the ones footing the bill for the discount. It’s the local businesses, often small operations themselves, that have to pay for the discount, pay a fee to Groupon, and pay a tax on the whole thing. Restaurants in particular, because the margins are so tight, seem to suffer when they try Groupon. Ponder this: if the economy was humming along, do you think Groupon ever gets off the ground?

Phone Books, Craigslist, and Twitter

I think about those things a lot, phone books, Craigslist, and Twitter. They’re all different communication tools, but they do have one critical thing in common: they’re communication from individual people that’s aggregated into a whole new thing. What gives the phone book value is not that my friend’s phone number is inside, it’s that nearly everyone has a number inside.

The same can be said for both Craigslist and Twitter: when all the individual communication points are combined, it gives more value to each, in addition to the bunch of posts or tweets (easier to live in a city than an island by yourself).

But there’s a problem, especially with Twitter: while communication can be aggregated by following someone, sometimes that’s both too much and not enough. It’s too much because I don’t want all the communication from someone that has an interesting tweet once a month. BUT I do want that one tweet because it’s a local business and they’ve got a great discount on dry cleaning. See the problem?

The Power of @WMApons, Twitter Lists and #wmapon

There are sites that aggregate discount offer tweets from big businesses (two, here and here), but there’s not a site or tool that slices the number of businesses down even further, creating a group of businesses based on geography that offer discounts or coupons via tweets. Maybe it’s out there, but I haven’t found such a targeted group.

This might blow up in my face, but here’s the idea. I’ve created a new Twitter account called Western Mass Discounts (@WMApons) and along with that a list of the same name. Why do both? People don’t want to muck up their main Twitter feed by following a 100 different local businesses, BUT I think they would follow list of pure local business discounts.

Think of the @WMApons list as a mall full of businesses offering deals. People go to the mall because they’re in the buying mood, and that’s why people would look at the @WMApons list: because they know local business are offering deals there. Remember, living on an island is hard. Better to be in the city or mall where the commerce is happening.

How To Join @WMApons

Making this idea hum like a finely tuned engine is going to possibly require local businesses that want to join @WMApons to create another Twitter account dedicated to ONLY your discount or coupon offers. Why? Because, remember, people want deals. That’s what you want to give them. If you foul-up the list with general tweets about how great business was today, then the perceived value of the list is diminished. The more valuable the list, the greater the number of followers, and the number of potential customers increases. Pretty cool, yeah?

That’s the idea, anyhow. If you have questions or suggestions for tweaks on this experiment, let me know in the comments below. Otherwise, if you’re a local business go follow @WMApons and if you’re a person looking for deals, follow the @WMApons/wmapons list.

Of course, like the phone book, Craigslist, and Twitter, the more people who use @WMApons, the more valuable it becomes.

Photo by eschipul and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

How are you holding back that flood?

How much information can you consume in a day? When your belly is full, can you leave a full plate sitting there, or do you go cold turkey and never look at another post?

In an effort to save the failing mental barricades, today I unsubscribed from the Boing Boing RSS feed. Had to. They left me no choice. Sometimes the information comes down the pipe in such a rush that the spigot has to be turned off.

Over the past 5 days, the wonderful writers at Boing Boing put more than 102 posts in my feed reader. I was surprised at how the content piled up because over 600 posts had just been marked as read, in an effort to get a handle on just how fast they were producing new content.

Boing Boing isn’t the only site I’ve shut out of my daily information smorgasbord. More than 50 other feeds have been pruned because they weren’t either producing enough, or producing too much for me to track. A lot of it’s interesting content, though it doesn’t fit into my life. The priority now is becoming a wonderful writer too, so it’s time to be picky about when I turn on the spigot.

Photo by echobase_2000 and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

5 Things I don’t know today

Right now I’m writing my first book that I plan on publishing for eReaders like Kindle and Nook. And it’s a lot harder than I thought. Writing isn’t the trouble — I think my writing is okay — the problem is how much I don’t know. During the writing process I discover something new every day.

Part of the process of writing, as espoused by William Zinsser in his book, Writing to Learn, is learning as we write. That even though we may know the topic, have done the research, we’re still learning as we write. We’re making connections and discovery during the act of writing.

And if you add to the mix more reading about a topic while you’re writing? It just might make you’re ear drums pop.

Given just the “known unknowns” (a favorite Rumsfeld double speak), here’s what’s missing today:

  1. I don’t know how to study other writers without becoming overly self critical of my work.
  2. I don’t know how to write powerful sentences that don’t sound like writing.
  3. I don’t know to physically do the job of writing. Sciatic nerve issues have been giving me a dead left leg.
  4. I didn’t know that self discipline wouldn’t be enough to keep me off the Internet when trying to craft sentences.
  5. I don’t know what I’ll write tomorrow — which is kind of scary — but I will write and it’ll be okay. There are always revisions.

What don’t you know today?

Oh, why this photo: I don’t know! I searched on Flickr for Creative Commons photos using the phrase “what I don’t know” and this photo appeared. The mysterious, confident smiles made me happy.

Photo by moonlight on celluloid and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Weekend reading – 3 Dec 2010

Weekend reading for your pleasure and edification …

Seth Godin says “Once you overload the user, you train them not to pay attention. More clutter isn’t free. In fact, more clutter is a permanent shift, a desensitization to all the information, not just the last bit.” Online instructors should definitely learn that lesson.

From EDUCAUSE, 7 Things You Should Know About Agile Development. It began in the world of software development, but the project management method Agile has expanded into other disciplines. I’m very interested in how I can integrate Agile methods into my work.

Dan Rodney’s list of Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts, keystrokes, tips & tricks, and recommended programs. A great one-stop resource for becoming a power OS X user.

From Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, “Underlying Factors of Sense of Community in Asynchronous Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Environments”:

Currently, many CSCL [Computer Supported Collaborative Learning] environments enable students to create personalized profiles and provide virtual spaces, such as online Coffee Shop for off-task discussions. This serves to get students more engaged in learning activities, to improve students’ connectedness, and to enhance sense of belonging in the learning environment. Yet, the findings of this present study suggest that to achieve such goals, CSCL developers should also add features and capabilities to the environment, which enable students to be aware of other’s activities and status.

Photo by Troy Holden and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

When professors go wild! Cell phone edition

There seems to be an Web meme of capturing video of professors going crazy in live classes. Because more and more classes are video taped and posted online, more of these videos are surfacing.

For your entertainment pleasure, and a holiday treat, I present a selection of my favorite professors going wild when cell phones ring in their classes. Hey, you can’t get this stuff in online education!

If you’re cell phone rings in class, think twice about answering it.

Photo by hillary h and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

5 Mac apps that can improve your work efficiency

Here are 5 applications that I use every day on my Mac, making my work life a bit easier. If you’re a Mac person, please leave a comment with your favorite work productivity apps and how you use them.

When I got my new work computer, I immediately loaded the 5 applications that I find most useful: LaunchBar, Adium, SoundSource, Growl, and iShowU HD.

LaunchBar5LaunchBar might be the most powerful productivity application for the Mac. Ever. Quicksilver is a similar application, though it hasn’t been updated in a while. Among other things, you can launch every application, document, web page, email … anything from your keyboard. It’s like Spotlight on steroids because within LaunchBar is a system of widgets and AppleScripts that add other features like searching the Web, calculating, copy and paste history, moving files. It’s kind of crazy because most people never use all of the available features. I’d like to do an experiment to see how many days I could go learning one new feature every day. I suspect that it would take more than a year before I exhausted all the features of LaunchBar. If you have any intention of become a Mac power user, get LaunchBar.

soundsourceSoundSource is a wonderful free app that does one thing well: helps you choose the source of your sound and where it’s supposed to be output. It loads on start-up, appearing in your menu bar, and from there you choose the various options where the sound is coming from and going. You could do this by opening the Sound Preference panel all the time, but I’m making sound adjustments on my computer at least 5-6 times a day, which would be a pain in the neck. Normally I have one set of ear buds through the headphone jack and a USB headset/mic at the same time. I listen to sound through the external speakers, the ear buds, or USB headset. SoundSource is the traffic control for all those inputs and outputs.

growlDo you know Growl? It’s a notification system that works in the background, letting you know when activity is taking place in various programs on your Mac. It’s real simple. When I get an email, chat activity, or am using my favorite FTP program, Transmit, Growl gives a graceful pop-up on the screen with information like the email subject line. Not a must have, Growl does make the work day marginally easier.

adiumOne thing that irritates me about instant messaging are the too numerous standards: IM, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google/Jabber, and many others. I have three different instant messaging accounts myself! Adium is an open source (free) program that handles all your different chatting accounts in one interface, seamlessly. If you have to use instant messaging for work, get Adium.

I believe one of the most under used tools in online education is the screencast. Depending on your discipline, screencasting can be a useful tool to describe and demonstrate procedures on a computer screen (read my blog post Common elements of effective screencasts). There are probably a half dozen different Mac applications that can help you create screencasts, but I find iShowU HD the best. Based on price and ease of use, iShowU HD is the best. Unlike some others, it’s Mac only; in general I find applications with both Mac and PC versions to be a lesser grade than those developed strictly for the Mac.

iShowU HD comes with presets for creating videos that can be posted to all the major video sharing sites, allows you to create watermarks on your videos, record your face using the built-in iSight camera at the same time as creating the screencast, among many other features. If you need a tool for creating screencasts, I recommend iShowU HD.

Okay, Mac people, what applications make your work day a little easier and more productive?

I haven’t forgotten the Windoz people; stay tuned for a future post running down the best work productivity apps for Windows.

Photo by mag3737 and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Future of the textbook

I saw an interesting presentation by the co-founders of Smarthistory.org, Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, sponsored by UMassOnline on October 1 (more, detailed info). Smarthistory.org is a project to create a Creative Commons based, online art history text book (Harris and Zucker are art history professors). You can watch the video of their presentation below.

I have two takeaways from the presentation. First, about the technology I used to record the video, the new iPod Touch. I was able to record 40 plus minutes of high definition video (720p) with decent audio and video quality, which took almost no effort. It’s not professional broadcast quality, but given the circumstances — like the lights being turned down — the video came out well. Our instructors should think about using this or similar easy video technology to create content for their courses.

The second takeaway from the talk is also video related. The folks at Smarthistory.org are using video in some interesting ways, including using Second Life to take virtual tours and do commentary about the Sistine Chapel. Other videos feature Harris and Zucker standing in front of a piece of art and having a conversation about it (not in Second Life), like this conversation they had while in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Hey, instructors, you too can do this! Making quick field videos with commentary, no matter what you study, is entirely possible. I can picture biologists, economists, historians, and zoologists taking their $150 video cameras into the field and creating brief commentaries that can bring students into your world.

Anyhow, enjoy the presentation from the fine folks at Smarthistory.org.

Photo by Old Shoe Woman and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

A technique to encourage critical thinking in online disucssions

In online education the tool most often relied upon to encourage interaction among students and instructors is the discussion forum. Mostly asynchronous discussions. It can be an effective tool if instructors at the same time can encourage active learning — that is, learning by doing.

If you’re interested in developing more critical thinking in your online course discussions, let me draw your attention to an interesting study done by some folks at Georgia State University and published by the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. “Using the Four-Questions Technique to Enhance Critical Thinking in Online Discussions” takes the “four question technique” from another study about encouraging critical thinking through active learning in face to face classes, and develops it for the online class environment.

The four question technique

To develop multiple types of critical thinking the researchers wrote questions that encouraged analyzing, reflecting, relating, and questioning. The original study used the following questions:

  1. “Identify one important concept, research finding, theory, or idea in psychology that you learned while completing this activity.” (analyzing)
  2. “Why do you believe that this concept, research finding, theory, or idea in psychology is important?” (reflecting)
  3. “Apply what you have learned from this activity to some aspect of your life.” (relating)
  4. “What question(s) has the activity raised for you? What are you still wondering about?” (questioning).

Using a modified version of the Washington State University Critical and Integrative Thinking Scale (WSUCITS) as a discussion grading rubric, the researchers found that using the four question technique did enhance critical thinking.

Do you use any unique methods to encourage critical thinking in your online discussions?

If you’re a UMass Amherst online instructor for Continuing & Professional Education and would like help brainstorming ideas to increase critical thinking by your students in discussion forums, please write to our faculty support line (facline <at> contined.umass.edu).

Photo by  Rob Inh00d and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

How Apple is changing the future of e-Learning

One of the frustrating aspects of supporting people in their e-Learning experience at a university — faculty and students — is that far too often support calls boil down to help with technical issues. They can be Java, browser (Firefox, Safari, and/or Internet Explorer), Flash, Microsoft Word, or PDF issues causing people fits. It’s a drag because we’d rather be helping faculty develop better courses, which means more effectively communicating with students, not tracking down browser incompatibilities with a certain version of Java and Blackboard.

That’s why Apple’s continuing battle against certain technologies that can gum-up the works on the Web is interesting to a guy like me. Because of Apple’s dominant market position in certain sectors — mobile computing, through its iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and laptops — it can turn the Web around to it’s way of thinking.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. In an interview the Starbucks Chief Information Officer, Stephen Gillett said that

iDevices from Apple are used more in its stores than any others. How important is that? Well, Gillett wanted to use Flash on the social network, but there wasn’t any way he could because of Steve Jobs’ refusal to support Flash. Even today Apple is refusing to include Flash in its laptops and desktops.

Apple is trying to transition away from using the Adobe Flash technology because in many instances it slows down the Web experience, and it’s not a very accessible technology for people with disabilities. There are alternatives that Apple does support on it’s iPhones and iPads.

And now the same situation might be happening with Apple’s support of Sun’s Java technology (read here and here for more details and commentary). Until now Apple has included an installation of Java in it’s operating system; Java was distributed and updated along with the Mac OS X operating system. That won’t be happening anymore, according to Steve Jobs, because Sun can spend the money to update Java for the Mac, not Apple.

Getting back to the topic at hand, what does this all mean for the future of e-Learning? There are two forces at hand that will define e-Learning technologies into the future: open, cross platform Web technologies that Apple and others are promoting; and the move towards mobile computing using smart phones and tablet computers. Those forces mean companies like Blackboard will have to eventually transition away from technology like Java that is proprietary and adopt open standards. That’s a good thing because, in time, it could probably lead to many fewer support calls from people pulling their hair out over a Java issue in Blackboard.

Common elements of effective screencasts

People research the darndest things. I found this useful article published in the online journal, The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, about common elements and instructional strategies of screencasts.

Based on the screencasts of the three journal authors and other professional screencasts, a framework with two categories was developed:  structural elements and instructional strategies.

Structural elements describe the format of a screencast in terms of “sectioning, screen recording, and general narrative elements”. The three common structural elements the authors identified  were

  • Bumpers – formulaic intros and “outros” to the videos
  • Screen movement – there are two options here: dynamic screencast movement (the video follows the mouse movement on the screen, like a movie camera) and static screencast movement (there is no point of view movement following the mouse, just a static frame). The default production choice is for static screencast movement; the authors hypothesize that dynamic movement is most often used in advanced screencast topics.
  • Narration – the authors have identified two types: explicit and implicit narration. Explicit narration coincides with the procedure that the learner can see on the video, while implicit narration is a more general description of the procedure that can be viewed on the video. Often both types of narration are used in the same screencast, the authors note.

The authors found five instructional strategies used in their screencast samples. While none of the screencasts used all of them, no other strategies were found.

  • Provide overview – “overview of a particular topic by introducing the topic, giving a rationale for studying the topic, and connecting the lesson topic to future lessons.”
  • Describe procedure – providing procedural, or even sub-procedural knowledge of routines and tasks.
  • Present concept – “an explanation of a specific concept related to the screencast topic,” a similar strategy was to “describe options available in completing a procedure.”
  • Focus attention – “The narration and/or cursor location direct learners’ attention to a particular component on the screen or to a certain part of an overall procedure.”
  • Elaborate content – “[elaborate] beyond the topic with regard to a particular procedure, concept, or other aspect of the screencast. This instructional strategy facilitates opportunities to enrich learners’ understanding and to encourage learners to consider other aspects of the process or concept associated with the screencast’s subject-matter.”

I think you could probably argue with this framework, but it’s a good starting point if you’re new to the world of screencasts. New screencasters can draw on the framework to structure their videos and use clear instructional strategies.

In a future blog post I’ll have a screencast that will demonstrate this framework.

Grabbing attention with the thematic and visual impact of words

Wordle is a tool that can help you visually demonstrate to your students what a passage of text is about, what the author was emphasizing in their writing. The above word cloud was created based on the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. The bigger the word, the more it’s prominance in the text you’ve asked to be analyzed. Of course, the assumption is that the more often a word is used, the more important it is to the meaning of the text. Do you think that’s a good representation of the Gettysburg Address?

A practical application for this tool in online teaching might be including these word clouds on the introduction or splash pages for your modules. If you were teaching an English course that was discussing Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” then you might include the following graphic that’s based on part 1 of the poem.

song of myself word cloud

How else can we use these word clouds in online education?

Update: Here are 10 uses for Wordle for learning.

 

Troubleshooting Java problems on a Mac

Mac users, just like Windows users, have issues with Java sometimes. Here’s a screencast that explains how you can begin the troubleshooting process before calling the friendly support person.

For users of Blackboard the most common problems seem to revolve around Java, so if you first clear your cache, delete the security certificate, restart your browser, and log back into Blackboard, that might solve your issue. If it doesn’t, then your efforts will give you a head start in the troubleshooting process.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdOYC93kkk8

Photo by cesarastudillo and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Give the Internet a break!

That’s right, please give the Internet a break. Don’t blame it for being slow sometimes, or maybe being broke when you most need it. If you truly understood how the Internet works, I think you’d be amazed that this complex tool actually works.

In today’s podcast I explain why using the Internet is not like turning on the faucet in your home, plus I explain one technical aspect of the Internet that will blow your mind: packets. After listening to the podcast, if you’re looking for a bit more information, here’s a short description of how packets work to deliver information over the Internet.

If you want to learn more about the history of the Internet, here are two books, both of which I’ve read, that should quench your thirst for understanding the Internet.

Have a great day, thanks for listening to the podcast, and take a deep breath the next time the Internet is giving you fits.

Troubleshooting your Java problems in Blackboard

In the first blog post and podcast of Instructional Design Now I give you a tip on how to help yourself be helped when you suspect a Java problem in Blackboard.

One of the most common culprits of problems in Blackboard in is Java. There are so many moving parts and dependencies, it isn’t a surprise that Java causes so many problems.

Stay tuned for more of these brief podcasts focusing on one tip and taking no more than 5 minutes of your time.

Photo by INeedCoffee / CoffeeHero and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Discover why I’m going fixed width on all my Thesis sites (and why you might want too)

I’m going fixed width (pixel based) on all my Thesis sites because I don’t want them looking like just another apple in the Thesis barrel. Now, please read the argument and rationale.

I was having a conversation with another Thesis developer last week, talking about what we liked most and least about Thesis, when I realized that one of the things that bothered me the most had nothing to do with Thesis itself, but the people who used it.  No, the problem isn’t that I personally dislike people who use Thesis.

Many people who use Thesis never get radical and make highly customized Web sites. Look at 100 random Web sites built with Thesis and you’ll probably find 80 of them very “Thesisy”; that is, the sites all have a common look or pattern to them because most of the default design options haven’t been changed very much. To change-up the common Thesis look, people need to learn some new tricks or hire the people that know the tricks. (I’m not going to link to examples of Thesisy sites because that wouldn’t be fair.)

Why is this Thesis pattern of Web design propagating across the Web? There’s a simple explanation, I think. People have the misperception that Thesis is a theme, though it does have some theme features (the design options). Thesis is really a framework (Wikipedia entry for framework). The Wikipedia entry details 4 elements of a framework:

  1. inversion of control
  2. default behavior
  3. extensibility
  4. non-modifiable framework code

By that criteria, Thesis is a framework; however, in addition to a default behavior, Thesis includes default design elements that are too irresistible not to use. If there was a framework purity test, the design options in Thesis would probably be out.

This is why I’m going with fixed width (pixel based) Thesis sites: because I can. And hardly anybody else it doing it. Thesis is a framework; I’ll do the design, thank you.

What do you think? Get it off your chest. Leave a comment below.

Photo by *Kicki* and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Storming in Sunderland

On May 4, 2010 there was a storm that whipped through Western Massachusetts. It knocked out power to many places in the area. This video was shot in Sunderland, MA, where these types of storms are frequent in the summer.

Sugarloaf Moutain and the surrounding area is a place of sometimes turbulent, strange weather. The Native American name for the mountain is Wequamps, and is a place of myth: it’s supposed to be body of a giant, human devouring beaver who lived in the former glacial Lake Hitchcock (now the Connecticut River).

Do you make these image mistakes with your Web site design?

Yes! Ninety-five percent of Web design is typography. That’s why that other five percent — images and video — is so important. If your design goes screwy with images or video, it’s like a turd floating on the Web page. How can you read the text with that turd floating in the sidebar?!

Since I began working with the Thesis theme, one thing has bothered me: the scaling of images in an em-based design. Along with that, I have one other note about effectively displaying images in your Web designs.

Of course, Thesis isn’t the only theme scaling images in an em-based design, but I’m going to use this as an example. Actually, other than two minor issues, I’m a huge fan of Thesis. Hey, not everything is perfect.

normal size image, not scaled

normal size image, not scaled

Here’s the problem: if you’re working with an em-based design and you’ve got images that are supposed to 100% span a column or header, then you need to also scale those images with an em-based formula, otherwise the images won’t span 100%. There’s no way around it.

Let’s look at this example from the Copyblogger sidebar. The right hand sidebar includes some image links that are scaled to the width of the column using ems. The images are 260 pixels wide, as you can see with the image to the right.

as it appears with em-based scaling

But, look at the image to the left, which is from a screen grab of the site in default size on Safari for Mac OS X. (The same thing happens to a lesser degree using Firefox for Mac OS X.) See the difference? That’s what I see every time I go to Copyblogger. Notice the quality degradation of the image, how the edges are blurry? That’s what happens when images are scaled using ems (or any relative measure for that matter).

How did they scale those sidebar images? Using this rule in the CSS:

 

li.widget_premium a img {
display: block;
width: 26em;
height: 12.5em;
background: #d4d2c3;
}

 

Hey, it’s not my site. They can do what they want, but I think because most Web sites are typographically intense, images that are used should have pop.

What are some other options besides scaling images relationally? You can go with a fixed width layout, then using images that don’t need scaling isn’t a problem. You might also try creating images without scaling and centering them in the column. The only problem is that there might be a lot of space around the images because they aren’t filling the column. Other than that, do you know any other solutions that don’t require em-based image scaling?

Don’t scale images with HTML

I have one last similar note about using images in your Web designs.

Believe it or not, people still use HTML to scale images instead of using an image editing program. At least a half dozen times a week I see HTML scaling of images on Web sites, which then slows down entire pages from loading quickly. You’ve seen what I’m talking about: the page is completely loaded except for some images that seem to be churning away, loading slowly from top to bottom.

I did this on purpose with the image to the right, which is really 1024 pixels wide, though using HTML it’s scaled down to 206 pixels wide using width="206" in the <img> tag (right mouse click and “view image” to see what I mean). The image might look fine, but it’s slowing down this page when it loads. Also, sometimes the image might not look so fine if you haven’t figured out the correct height/width ratio before doing your HTML scaling.

Those are just two issues I see with using images in Web design. Do you have any others? Please leave them in the comments for everybody to learn from.

Photo by thebudman84 and republished here under a Creative Commons license.