Digital Unicorns

Welcome! My name is David Nugent - I’m currently studying for a MSc in Applied Digital Media with Griffith College Dublin. This blog is a space for me to write about various topics based around Digital Media as I progress through my masters.

New York Times and the Snow Fall effect.

In my web authoring class we were recently discussing recent trends in web design and layout. Much of the discussion focused on a recent move from short concise content to longer, more print like, lengthy text. This return to principles more associated with print media is also reflected in less distraction from competing advertising, links, video, gifs, to a streamlined, clean and minimal, content focused method.

One of the key moments in shift in layout (especially in editorial driven sites) was the New York Times article Snow Fall. It focuses on an avalanche that occurred in Washington, burying a group of 16 skiers. The article opens with a splash page comprising of a video that incorporates interview, reenactment, actual footage, and expert interviews – then you are invited to read the full article.

What makes it unique and game changing was firstly it’s length – the article is arranged into 6 separate pieces that can be access from the top navigation or from the bottom of the page as you finish each section – which are presented in a parallax scrolling format. As well as written content each section contain images, video and audio that compliments the overall narrative. The images are large, the have CSS3 and Java Script elements that transition fade as you scroll down, or hover over them – same with video and audio segments. The effect creates an atmosphere of minimalist, winter like, white space that makes it stand out from other articles on the NYT site. Even the advertising, which is mostly unavoidable on a commercial website, is integrated into the article in a way that doesn’t take from the overall aesthetic. 

While the article is innovative and changes how long read articles can be incorporated into a web environment that can integrate other media such as video, images, audio, it is not without its criticisms – firstly, it’s a long read – about an avalanche – while certainly interesting 6 separate sections and so much supporting media seems a bit OTT. Secondly, it’s a little glitchy – loading times can be lengthy and (on my MAC at least) some elements don’t load as you would expect. While innovation and constant change is a mainstay of the web the criticisms of Snow Fall highlight the golden rule of print – content is king! If the content isn’t interesting, no matter how well presented – people wont read it.

 

SHOWGIRLS*

The image of Elizabeth Berkley licking a pole was altered using the programming environment Processing. By utilising the function get ( ) processing returns the colour of any pixel in a pre-loaded image - I simply then drew random ellipses,  between 1 and 10 pixels in size, using the pixel colour returned to create the resulting image. 
The sample here is pretty easy and quick to do - I’m interested in looking at photo manipulation via processing  in more detail when I get the time.

*It’s one of my favourite films, seriously if you haven’t seen it you’re missing out on one of the kitschiest (in a good way) films ever made.

SHOWGIRLS*

The image of Elizabeth Berkley licking a pole was altered using the programming environment Processing. By utilising the function get ( ) processing returns the colour of any pixel in a pre-loaded image - I simply then drew random ellipses, between 1 and 10 pixels in size, using the pixel colour returned to create the resulting image.
The sample here is pretty easy and quick to do - I’m interested in looking at photo manipulation via processing in more detail when I get the time.

*It’s one of my favourite films, seriously if you haven’t seen it you’re missing out on one of the kitschiest (in a good way) films ever made.

Flat Design

 

As part of my Msc one of the primary subject is Web Authoring – the major focus of the subject is creating websites using HTML and CSS – in the last number of weeks we have moved from building content and semantic structure with HTML5 to styling websites with CSS3.

CSS is what gives websites their look and feel – color, fonts, layout, and spacing is all vital elements to design. CSS takes the content and structure of HTML and applies these elements to complete the website. Knowledge of basic good design techniques is essential, such as understanding the importance of white space – as is consideration of established website structure, like how people expect navigation and linked elements to work - but equally a awareness of current trends is critical.

In 2013, one of the biggest trends in web design is what’s know as flat design. Flat design is, at its core, a form of minimalism. Design elements like drop (or inner) shadow, gradient, bevel, and embossing are removed – relying on bright, but muted, colors and clear (often retro) typography as the main style elements.

Flat design makes strong use of white space – leaving the primary content to get across the key information of the webpage. Images are often large – and icons also minimalist in identifying their function.

The biggest influence of flat design came with the launch of Apples IOS7 – previously apples design was chiefly skeuomorphic in nature. Skeuomorphic design tries to make the digital iconographic representation closely resemble it natural version – such as a calculator icon that tries to look like an actual real calculator by using shadow and detail to form a 3D representation. With the launch of IOS7 Apple changed direction – their icons became extremely minimalist - details icons were reduced to a square color with a basic white shape that tries communicate its use – such as a musical note for iTunes.

While flat design is visually appealing and lets the content speak for itself it can often be simply too minimalist – such as icons being difficult for people to understand their function as too little information is given in the design. Another downside is repetition – websites looking almost identical due to the lack of design and over reliance of bright colors and large retro type.

As an alternative to this overuse some designers have found a middle ground called almost flat design; a happy medium of minimalist elements but certain design techniques like outer shadow added to give a little depth to the website.

Design never stays still and constantly evolves – eventually flat will become outdated and something else will takes its place – until then it’s worth keeping some of its elements in mind when creating websites

ZENBULLLETS - Matt Pearson

One of the primary subjects in my Masters course in Multimedia Programming - the programming language and environment we use is Processing (available for free at www.processing.org).
Processing was initially designed as a software sketchbook and a easy to use and learn programming language - providing a space to quickly produce and test programming ideas. As the output is visual it quickly began to gain attention from visual artists looking to produce work via programming and from programmers interested in exploring visual outcomes - such as data visualisation.
As someone with a background in visual art production (mostly photography and video) I am really interested in exploring programming as a means of art making and introducing it into my own work.
A book I find particularly helpful is Generative Art (a practical guide to using processing) by Matt Pearson. The book is a beginners guide to creating generative graphics for print, video, and the web - and covers subjects such as 3D drawing, randomness, and fractals.

The link in this post is Matt Pearson’s personal site ZENBULLETS - which contains information and examples of work he has produced through processing and various other programming languages.
He produces a lot of code that responds visually to audio data, experimental video processing, and interactive programmes that responds to the user - giving a nice insight and introduction to anyone interested in the possibilities of producing visual art via programming and coding.

Moving on (from XHTML 1.0)

At work I use XHTML 1.0 – a now pretty outdated reformulation of HTML in XML syntax. In College I am beginning to learn HTML5 – from the get go it was pretty clear that a lot of things have changed for the better. On the surface the main changes are the fact that audio and video can now be included using HTML, but when you dig a little deeper there is a nice range of new and improved elements.

Firstly the doctype has changed. The XHTML doctype is pretty cumbersome and tough to learn off, in HTML5 you don’t actually have to use one at all – well, in a way you do (current and older browser types require a doctype) but it’s much shorter and easier to remember, it’s simply <!DOCTYPE html> compared to XHTML’s -

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN”

"http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd">

New elements have been created to which allows us to create web documents that make more semantic sense. Until HTML5 much of web content was divided up using the div element and an id describing the div (such as header etc.) but even with an id, div’s do not have any semantic structure to them – now we can use new elements such as <header>, <footer>, <figure>, etc. that give the structure new meaning. The figure element is particular interesting as it allows up to combine, say an image and caption, in a meaningful way.

Previously would have used the following to caption an image:

<img src=”path/to/image” alt=”About image” />

<p>Image of something. </p>

But now with the figure element I can write a space for them to combine and create semantic meaning to a captioned image.

<figure>

<img src=”path/to/image” alt=”About image” />

<figcaption>

<p>This is an image of something. </p>

</figcaption>

</figure>

One of the features of HTML5 that I do find strange is the fact that, if I choose to, I no longer need to wrap attributes in quotation or close off elements – for some reason this just seems wrong to me so I think I’ll not be availing! But in general the new features available provide the opportunity to include additional content and make the web document more meaningful, clean, and easier to read.

Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is…

As the Holiday season rapidly approaches, Apple and Windows have announced their ‘just in time for Christmas’ new tablets – Apple with the iPad Air and Mini with retina display, and Windows with the Surface 2.

Currently there is more iPads used than all other tablets combined – will the Surface 2 change this current trend?…well, the answer is probably no!

The new iPad Air is thinner, lighter, and much faster running on Apple’s 64-bit A7 processor, but that wasn’t the only announcement at Apple’s media event on the 22nd of October – they also announced a host of freebies! From the 22nd the latest version of OS X Mavericks will be released as a free upgrade – even on iMacs and MacBooks released as far back as 2007.  iWorks has been given a complete over haul and, along with iLife, is free for anyone who purchase a new Mac. Also any new iOS7 device comes with Pages, Keynote, Numbers, iMovie and iPhoto pre-installed for free.

Windows response to iWorks as a free software install was not surprisingly negative, stating “Since iWork has never gotten much traction, and was already priced like an afterthought, it’s hardly that surprising or significant a move,” said Frank Shaw (Microsoft corporate vice president). He continued “So, when I see Apple drop the price of their struggling, lightweight productivity apps, I don’t see a shot across our bow, I see an attempt to play catch up.”

The Surface 2 includes Office (the worlds most popular suite) for free and is a cheaper option compared to the new line of iPads – but so did the original surface and that was not a resounding success, in fact Windows cut the price by $180 and gave away thousands of free Surface Pro tablets at its developers conference in a bid to boost sales – eventually Windows made a $900 million write off on unsold inventory.  So it remains to be seen if the Surface 2 will have much more success on catching up on  iPad sales. Initial reviews would point to a no – the Guardian review stated that the Surface is… “ still desperately searching for an excuse to exist”, computerworld said that the second attempt has  “Better hardware, but still with Windows RT”– highlighting one of the reasons many will avoid the Surface – Windows OS is just bad!

So basically you can opt for an relatively expensive tablet with a host of free software or a cheaper version that has Office also for free but runs on (IMO) a terrible operating system…just incase you are still torn between the two Windows had one surprise PR stunt up their sleeves – Dizzee Rascal, standing in front of a fully functioning 27 ft by 17 ft  Surface 2 – so hip, so now.

Facebook changes privacy settings for teens.

Facebook has changed it privacy setting allowing teens to now share content with all users. The changes, announced Wednesday, will affect teens between the ages of 13 and 17. Previous to this Facebook users who fall into the age bracket were limited to sharing information with friends and friends of friends. The new setting is required to be manually activated and the user will receive a warning that they are being exposed to a broader audience, the restricted privacy setting will still be default and has been further restricted to let teens only share with friends (no longer to friends of friends as previous). The warning message will issue with every post made while the public setting is active.

According to the Facebook press release the reason for the change is to give young uses more of a voice on matters that they may feel strongly about. “Teens are among the savviest people using social media, and whether it comes to civic engagement, activism, or their thoughts on a new movie, they want to be heard,” Facebook wrote. ”While only a small fraction of teens using Facebook might choose to post publicly, this update now gives them the choice to share more broadly, just like on other social media services.” The latter statement may reveal the true reason for the change in privacy settings – if teens can share info with anyone then Facebook may claim some of the traffic currently lost to digital services like WhatsApp, Blackberry messenger, kik, Snapchat et al. further broadening their social media presence.

While the new change may be rejoiced by teen users it will most likely be viewed by society at large as a controversial move by Facebook considering the recently heightened debates on teen safety online, as incident such as teen bullying and suicides associated with ask.fm, and the sexual images of an under age girl at Slane that called Twitter policy into question were given serious attention by the media.

Not that the privacy settings were ever a serious barrier to underage teens and children posting what the liked to whom they wanted as Facebook has no way of verifying a users age. In fact, a study by the British Advertising Authority found that 83 per cent of the kids questioned had lied about their age on social media

'Tis the Season for GIF-ing - Studio 360

I love GIFs, there is something about the quick, looping, animation that appeals to me - I think it’s the quirky, slightly camp, nature to the GIF that I enjoy. I mean, why just text about feeling a bit down when you can send a GIF of Britney Spears, bathed in natural light, endless proclaiming with a teary eye ‘I’m sad’ - perfection. Although my personal use of the GIF tends to focus on 80’s teen movies and melodramatic pop starlets - the attached link is a nice insight to contemporary artists exploring the GIF as a valid form of art making - well worth a read.

Web Accessibility and Equality

Recently (through my day job) I was invited to a conference on ‘Making public services accessible’, as a Web publisher for a government department and a Digital Media student it is important I’m aware of best practice in web accessibility. The main focus for those involved with web applications was a talk and workshop given by Ben Terrett, head of design at the UK Government Digital Services and Joshua Marshall – developer lead.

Their work on creating a single point of entry for UK public services called gov.uk was awarded best design of 2013 – beating the Shard building and Olympic cauldron. At the heart of gov.uk is a commitment to equality for all members of society through a focus on accessibility from the start – not as an optional added extra later in the design process. What I gained from their design strategy was a shift in how I view accessibility – instead of looking it as a process to make digital applications better for disabled members of society it can been seen as a means of equality – every member of society can gain from clean, concise design that delivers on user needs not convenience of Government.

gov.uk has reduced UK public service websites from 2,000 to approximately 300. They achieved this through discarding of information that is not essential to government or is best delivered else where, rewriting of information in simplified plain English instead of governmental jargon, a reduction in unnecessary images and graphic s, booking forms universal in look and use across all departments, use of most up-to-date HTML 5 with limited use of java plugins, one platform (no apps or separate accessibility sites), good contrast, and good use of links and tables. Through this process of elimination and ease of use they created a portal that makes digital the preferred means of contact, and in doing so can save an estimated 1.8 Billion pounds annually.

While here in Ireland there is no equivalent to the UK Government Digital Services office it is encouraging that the National Disability Authority has created a Universal Design Guidance for Irish Online public services that makes recommendations for how best to design digital applications that can be used by all members of society. While aimed at designers of public service websites it is a good resource for anyone interested in creating digital design that can be experienced and used by as wide an audience as possible.