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Plug it in

Categories: Learning things, Our work, Useful/interesting

We're always interested in making things better through design, and as technology develops we're increasingly able to improve functional – as well as visual – design 'under the hood' of the websites we build.

A great user experience for admins as well as website visitors? In the web parlance of old; EPIC WIN!!11!!.

Many of these improvements are made possible by judicious use of plugins.

What's that now?

Avoiding too much techy jargon, a plugin is a bit of code that gets added (plugged-in) to an existing software application to help it do more.

Plugins come in all shapes and sizes – some tweak an existing feature to make it work in a slightly different way; others are incredibly involved and drastically extend the capabilities of an application.

As an example of the latter; an off-the-shelf content management system (CMS) won't necessarily come with an integrated shop, so if a website needs to sell something, that functionality needs to be added – in the form of a plugin. (It's either that or build a shop from scratch, which will have a fairly drastic impact on cost and timescales.)

In essence, plugins add specific features to an existing application.

Why we use plugins

Our favoured CMS, Craft – a beautiful, simple, lightweight system – has a good deal of built-in functionality, but sometimes we need it to do more or do something a little differently.

So, we tailor Craft to each project by adding certain plugins – giving the system the precise features to meet a project's needs without it getting weighed-down with superfluous functionality.

I guess the mantra's "Start simple and add only what's needed."

We sometime use plugins made by third parties but when there's nothing out there that does the specific thing we need, that's not a problem; that's when we build it ourselves.

Plugins we've made

Pimp My Matrix
Keeps a complex and long list of design functions neat and easy-to-use.

Button Box
A set of field types for colours, text size, star-ratings, customisable buttons …



Table Maker
Our most recent release is Table Maker which allows website administrators to define their own table columns; something Craft's in-built table function doesn't (yet) do.

This plugin was developed so one of our clients can easily and flexibly create tables of wildly differing datasets, without needing umpteen table templates to choose from – pretty fundamental for a governmental finance organisation.

TL;DR
We build Craft plugins which are freely available for other developers to use – plugins.supercooldesign.co.uk

This post was co-authored by Josh.

HQ heritage

Categories: Jewellery Quarter, Learning things, Tenth anniversary, Useful/interesting

Since the beginning (aka 2004), Supercool has been based in the same building in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter.

When we moved from the rear office to the front a few years back, it prompted us to do a bit of digging into the history of this listed building. Our tenth anniversary seems as good a time as any to share what we found out.

From some internet-based detective work and a visit to the Pen Museum down the road we discovered that, along with neighbouring buildings, our office seems to've formed part of St Paul's Pen Works; home to one of Birmingham's foremost pen nib manufacturers, George W. Hughes. (The factory moved to Legge Lane from nearby St Paul's Square, hence the name.)

A bit more interweb trawling uncovered a box of 'Geo. W. Hughes' pen nibs for sale. Despite its bruised and battered state, we had to buy it.

Why is it called the 'Million Pen'? Perhaps it commemorates the millionth nib produced in the factory? Was it manufactured after the factory had turned over its first £1million, maybe? We can't find the answer to that, so it remains a mystery.

Possibly an even greater mystery is the nothing-short-of-bizarre packaging design.

Along with the nib's name, the design features what appear to be a duck and a dog on the front, as well as some exotic-looking script; with the side of the box sporting another line drawing of the dog, now holding the duck in its mouth.

On first look this seems to make no sense, and have zero relevance – but one of the more believable suggestions I've come across for this peculiar animal pairing is that these creatures are in fact a goose and a fox. The clever, quick-witted fox – standing-in for Geo. W. Hughes' pen nibs – is doing-away with the goose, which represents the out-dated, out-foxed quill pen. Ah-ha!

The 'hieroglyphs', however, remain unexplained …

On the underside of the box is a big wodge of copy signed by George himself, warning people off inferior copies of his stellar product. It's incredibly old-fashioned and quite, quite ace.

Incase you can't quite make it out in the photo, it says:

"St. Paul's Pen Works, Birmingham. GEORGE W. HUGHES having, after many years of unceasing effort, succeeded in bringing the manufacture of STEEL PENS to the highest point of perfection, regrets to be under the necessity of cautioning the Public against base imitations of the Genuine Article, which disreputable parties have endeavoured to foist upon the Public. None are genuine but those with this Signature, thus– Geo W. Hughes"

Final fun fact: these very same nibs are important enough to form part of a National Trust collection.

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This the second in a series of blog posts commemorating Supercool's decade of design.

AMA keynote notes: David Carlin, RMIT

Categories: Inspiration, Learning things, Useful/interesting

All the way from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Associate Professor at the School of Media and Communication, David Carlin talked to us about a collaborative project between the university and Circus Oz – the Living Archive.

Arts organisations are, to a growing extent, becoming digital media producers so there's a growing need to have somewhere to store – and indeed show-off – past work. It's fairly simple to guess from the name that the Living Archive is a place for Circus Oz to house their videos, photos and memories (the public can add comments which the site labels 'stories', which is a nice touch) of past performances.

It's a great idea – though I'm not convinced by some of the execution. The user interface and navigation seem clunky, and the site's not responsive, making it very awkward to use on a mobile, which is a shame. (I can't help but think like a designer!)

I'm also unsure if the videos being hosted on the site itself, rather than somewhere a bit more public like YouTube or Vimeo, is ideal. This surely restricts the number of people who'll randomly and happily stumble-upon the films?

Still; the fact this stuff is publicly available at all, rather than sat in storage getting dusty and forgotten, is a good thing.

What I actually found more interesting/useful than the project itself, however, were the prompts about the project process on David's slides:

Let yourself ask "What if …?"
I guess this involves allowing a bit of time within a project to be playful and think creatively. Don't start with barriers; those will invariably come later!

Build the team to make, and to think
As a collaboration between a university and an arts organisation, the project team was comprised of people with a great breadth of skills; from information design to cultural heritage, performance studies to computer science. Everyone in the team had a clearly defined role, which is important – when folks lose sight of their purpose, there's a very real danger of a project stalling, over-running and/or being watered-down.

It's a process, not a product
Yes! The Living Archive is by its nature a work-in-progress. It's ever-growing and changing. It's not set-in-stone. 'Process not product' is something I think people are starting to their heads around when it comes to online stuff; the ability to continuously – almost seamlessly – develop something is a great strength and a major opportunity.

Build buy-in from the inside out
Another reference to the importance of internal communication, which is often thought of as secondary … if it's thought about at all. It's vital that an organisation's people are considered and consulted, and that they understand what a project – or indeed an organisation – is all about. (As mentioned in the final paragraph of my other circus-related AMA Conference post.)

The Living Archive has been built to be easy for Circus Oz to add-to, and also easy to alter the look of – they're currently working on a 'vanilla' version to license-out to other organisations.

It remains to be seen whether it will work for others – my feeling is it'd certainly need some user interface design work, and be made mobile-friendly, before it's an appealing enough product – but, for Circus Oz at least, its Living Archive is a big asset … which just keeps getting bigger!