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The current state of design

Categories: Events, Learning things, Nice stuff, Useful/interesting

Gov.uk was officially switched on yesterday, replacing direct.gov and Business Link. It's all part of the government's 'single domain strategy' – a move which will eventually bring all government sites into one place.

Gov.uk crown logo

As part of Supercool's 'Conference Tour 2012', Josh and I went to the Theory of (R)Evolution conference run by Shropgeek the other week. There were lots of good talks but the one that really stood out for me was by Paul Annett, Creative Lead at Government Digital Services (GDS).

GDS was set up in 2011 to revolutionise the way government carries out its digital projects, and how we interact with the government online. The idea has been to change the approach from large, lengthy (and pricey) outsourced IT contracts and move more in-house; to be more efficient and transparent.

Although GDS is a relatively new department, it already has some staggering stats:

  • They've closed down 1,500 government-run websites – so far. The plan is close down around half of the remaining 600 or so. 
  • Long-term contracts have meant that it has previously cost up to £50,000 to change one line of code on a live site. (Red tape is really expensive.)
  • Currently, 1 in 3 phonecalls to government agencies are about a failed online transaction. By eliminating these calls, it's hoped that call-centre costs will be reduced by £1 billion.
  • Despite now using Gmail and, what you might think would be prohibitively expensive, iPhones and Apple Macs, GDS's overall IT costs are already 80% less than those of direct.gov.

The most interesting part of the talk for me, however, was hearing about their approach to design. Just the idea of a government project using words like 'design', 'usability' and 'user-experience' is virtually unheard of in this country – but Gov.uk is showing some real innovation.

Paul took us through the GDS design principles; a brilliantly articulated guide for any large development project. Loosely it's about keeping projects small (as in cutting out any 'bloat'), simple, open and agile. 

An example of the design principles in action

The design principles also include a style guide for written content, which is something even small organisations can follow with regard to writing good web copy.

Of course whilst the Gov.uk site is all shiny and new, content will be tidy, and easy to both find and understand. It'll be interesting to see if, and how, that changes as more content is added over time.

But at the moment it feels a bit weird to be so proud of the government's website.

Better CSS

Categories: Events, Learning things, Useful/interesting

Recently James and I went to Canvas Conf and listened to a number of great talks on web development. We particularly got a lot out of Harry Roberts’ (Senior UI Developer for BSkyB) talk 'Big CSS' which focussed on writing maintainable CSS for big projects. While we predominantly write CSS for relatively small projects we still came away with some very useful ideas and practices that will help us do what we do better.

With CSS we'd always tend to write a rough set of styles that broadly cover the whole project, setting up basic things like a reset, typography, header and footer etc. and then write the rest of the CSS as specific chunks of code that do one thing.

Instead of doing this however we’re realizing that we can break down a lot of that stuff so it's more re-usable, so more efficient. Take, for instance, a list of links that supplements an article; there are many abstractions to this one object that we can break out and re-use:

  • A vertical list without bullets.
  • It has links inside.
  • It might have icons on the left of each link.

We can then apply some or all of those abstractions to another object, like a list of downloads, which would have all of the above plus an additional rule for the filesize meta-data that forms part of each link.

Another aspect we took away from Harry's talk was how important it is to structure your CSS sensibly. Firstly, we have to get out of the pattern of writing our CSS in the same order as the markup ... that just doesn’t make the best use of the cascade!

So instead I think we’ll be following something along the lines of this:

  1. Table of contents
  2. Reset
  3. Typography
  4. Structural framework
  5. Generic objects
  6. Specific components
  7. Style trumps

All the while we can be picking and choosing from our growing library of abstractions.

The final part of all this is comments. We came away determined to use more comments in our CSS; the uses comments can have are endless but for us I think the following practices will be fairly revolutionary:

  • Linking markup to the CSS by adding in blocks of HTML as reference.
  • Explaining weird bits of code or specific techniques used.
  • Linking back to an abstraction when overriding something further down the cascade or in another file.

So over the next few months, we’ll be steadily building a little CSS framework that works for us, with lots of abstractions that we can re-use and a structure that makes sense.

Art smarts

Categories: Events, Learning things, Useful/interesting

Art > Marketing > Family > Funds cycle

The other week I went along to an AMA Network event.

It was good. Though I don't work directly in arts marketing, I thought Sarah Gee's talk on how marketing and development teams could and should work together, pooling resources and wisdom, was fascinating. (And worded/explained much more entertainingly than that.)

It was so interesting that I've been meaning to write it up – but have consistently failed to find the time to do so properly, so on the off-chance there are any nuggets of wisdom discernible from my notes (made after-the-fact, tut-tut) here they are:

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Arts orgs having to become more business-like in terms of 'customer retention'. No resting on laurels and becoming complacent because funding appears year after year; those days are over.

It's important to involve people from the organisation as a whole – and to be more open. And open to change.

Don't be shy about the fact the org is a charity. Nothing to be ashamed of! If people were more aware, they may be more inclined to give.

Don't concentrate on one route only. Crossover is vital e.g. capital appeals can help people understand an arts org. is a charity. [For example Hippo Stage Appeal which launched in the Prospectus we designed, aimed at key stakeholders and funders is now also a public-facing campaign.]

Being clear to audiences/donors about the organisation as a whole, not just individual projects. (A good point was made about the possibility of people becoming fatigued being frequently asked to fund individual 'projects' - that time/those resources should also be spent on long-term gains; building relationships with people who may eventually prove to be 'high value givers' or who bequeath a legacy.

Inform people about the organisation as a whole, as well as individual projects.

Interesting fact re. legacy-giving and inheritance tax – many people give away anything over the inheritance tax threshold as they don't appreciate being taxed for it again. Remember though – the 'baby boomers' may be the final legacy-givers as the rest of us may not have any money to bequeath! 

My favourite line: "Treat people as people". 

This is something the arts is very well-placed to do, particularly compared with corporates as so many people have and/or build emotional attachments with the arts; attachments which are much deeper and mean more to them than 'for profit' brands. Marketing plus development = the perfect range of skills to benefit organisations.

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By the way, the diagram heading up this post is based on a slide from Sarah's presentation but I can't for the life of me remember who this marketing/fundraising cycle should be credited to. If you know, please pop a note in the comments and I'll update the post accordingly. Ta.

UPDATE:
Thanks to Chris Unitt for reminding me that the marketing/fundraising cycle graphic concept is by Michael Kaiser. Chris has also handily pointed me towards a slideshare presentation about it: The Cycle.

Family fun (for everyone)

Categories: Events, Nice stuff, Our work

Last weekend I popped along to the IDFB Family Weekend which happened at the MAC.

Despite being child-free, I had a great time watching a world premiere dance perfomance, Spill (touring playgrounds of the West Midlands and beyond this summer; catch it if you can, it really is worth a watch) …

Spill - a playground of dance; a world premiere dance performance at mac birmingham

… nosing at what 'home' means to people over in The Hub …

Home at The Hub - scribbles on the walls

… and seeing teeny kids having brilliantly messy fun decorating the billowy white shapes I'd drawn out for Peg-a-Cloud.

Peg-a-cloud at the family weekend.

It was a pretty good feeling to see lots of the designs I've been working on for the past few months all in one place, out in the wild, and being well-used – by loads of people. (The Family Weekend was a sell-out.)

It's one of those events which may appear effortless to the folks popping along to enjoy a nice day out, but from working on the IDFB print, I've got a bit of a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the festival workings, so have an idea of the huge amount of effort and planning, and the looooong days, which go into getting these things to come together and run smoothly; not to mention making sure people know what's happening, when and where, when there's a jam-packed programme of events.

So hats-off to the smiley, friendly, helpful and seemingly tireless lot who made the Family Weekend ace for this big kid – and plenty more besides.

My IDFB adventures this coming weekend promise to be altogether more grown-up: Bombay Beach (part of the Light Fantastic film season) and the Digbeth Shuffle.