DC Design Talks From Keith’s Perspective

Keith MuthKeith Muth
Front End Developer, L-3 Communications

A problem solver, Keith enjoys connecting front end design with back end programming. Keith graduated from JMU’s Special Media Arts and Design program and went on to make front-end development his full time career.

I’ve never had actual formal design training…unless you count people like Samantha showing me her favorite font books and describing her emotional attachment to DIN 1451 (because the “R” has a straight leg). That is exactly why I was excited about DC Design Talks. I saw the possibility for it to be a crash course in fundamentals of design and discover how I can get the same inspiration designers find everyday. As it turns out, you can learn a lot by leaving your boring code at home and listening to how designers create their ideas. Alex Giron’s presentation on “Finding Design Inspiration” gave really good tips on how to spark creativity by surrounding yourself with books, art work, or even games. I think he made a valid point that you need to make your environment fun in order to find creativity. It really made me think my work surroundings and the changes I could make.

While listening to the speakers, I realized that web designers are amazing User Interface experts (I used to think designers just made designs that looked good!). Their advice can make a website not only visually appealing, but functional as well. Patrick Haney’s presentation showed just how effective simplicity can be in web design. I thought his reference to Dan Cederholm’s principle of “suggesting the box” was a good design tip. You don’t need to always draw a box in your design, but merely suggest one is there using single lines. The “rule of 7 things” was also good advice; you should really limit the number of options to around 7 things or else people are going to start dying (…or just get really confused). If you want to see how NOT to layout out a website, please visit MySpace.com [not worthy of link outside of this website] and count the number of navigation items are thrown at you. I also heard multiple times that Patrick is “not a sausage” and although he promised to tell Shannon and I the story at the bar, but we never got around to hearing it.

One of the more interesting talks was about something I knew little about. The wonderful world of user experience design and documentation, presented by Nathan Curtis. Until I heard him speak, I thought the presentation was going to be about component libraries in Flash, such as SlideShowPro or some other add-on. Turns out a component library is basically “a combination of elements that creates a purposeful and reusable environment.” In other words, you identify common items in your designs for a website, and then you label them and put the items in a library so they can be reused by everyone on the project. It’s a crucial part of a site planning process that is generally overlooked, but completely necessary. Nathan showed his step-by-step process of making a component library, which even involves physically cutting out the components, arranging them on paper, and gluing them onto legal sheets for review. I thought I was going to lose interest in the topic, since I thought “such extensive planning isn’t really related to the scale of sites I do,” except the opposite happened. This was partly thanks to Nathan’s comparison of component libraries in user experience design with the components in a Lego set, but also because I realized this is exactly the type of planning we were trying to do when redesigning Army.mil! Of course, ours was much more elementary than what Nathan was covering (probably since Nathan is what we call an “expert”) but I still wish I would have seen his presentation prior to undertaking such a large redesign. I will definitely be checking out Sun’s Web Design Standards and Yahoo’s Pattern Library to see how the big dogs are doing it so I can plan for better designs in the future.