What good are weblog entries about weblogs permeating design and business if you can’t read about their usage on the front line?
Khoi Vinh of Behavior Design, an NYC-based deisgn firm, talked to us recently about the XHTML/CSS redesign of his company’s website, and how they used MovableType to manage their Flash calendar. So without further ado, here we go.
Business Logs: So Khoi, can you tell us a little about your background in the industry, and how you got started with Behavior?
Khoi Vinh: My degree from Otis College of Art + Design in Los Angeles says “Communication Design” on it, which is a euphemism that allowed the school to group graphic designers and illustrators under a single major. I fell into the illustration half, mostly by virtue of the fact that, having graduated high school with a penchant for drawing and not really having any idea what design was, I was groping for some kind of career in the visual arts.
When I discovered how to use the Macintosh for the first time, I finally realized that I had been trying to solve information problems all along — that is, what interested me most was the visual expression of information. That led to a career in print design in Washington, DC, which wasn’t all that bad except for the fact that dealing with printing technologies made me really unhappy; there were too many barriers to expressing ideas.
When the Internet came along, I felt finally as if I had found the right combination of art, information and technology. I moved to New York and got a job with Rare Medium Inc., one of a thousand dot-coms that had tremendous potential but which was over-promised and mismanaged into the ground.
I met all of the partners at Behavior while working there, and when we lost our jobs in the dark days of the Internet bust, we formed Behavior in hopes of carrying forward with all of the things that we liked about working together: a strong commitment to highly usable, beautiful design and the belief that we could do it better than anybody else.
BL: It seems as though Behavior has been pretty busy as of late with the standards-compliant redesign. What spurred the switch from the old to the new and what kind of complications (if any) did you stumble across with XHTML and CSS?
KV: Like most visually-oriented Web shops, we had made a bad habit of doing whatever it took to execute our aesthetic ideas in code, often to the detriment of the code itself. The old toolbox of nested tables was great for building Web sites at the end of the 90s when the only real litmus tests were “Does it work in Internet Explorer?” and, “Does it look good?”
Aesthetics, of course, is the most prominent, earliest indicator of the elegance of most any design, for better or worse. But we’ve always believed that there is more to what we do than just the way it looks. We try to construct every design solution to be efficient and inventive all the way through to its core.
When we started looking at XHTML and CSS as a new toolbox a few years ago, we realized that the tools had matured enough such that they allowed us to execute virtually everything that we’d been able to do with nested tables and font tags. What’s more, it allowed us to think in a new way about our design solutions; where we had always been designing for Web browsers as an end in itself, using Web standards makes us think of our solutions in a more flexible, holistic method, where the browser is just one expression of the content. It forced us to relearn our design principles a bit, to re-organize our thoughts, which made it a great challenge.
We’ve been very fortunate to have a heavy workload full of long-term projects pretty much since we opened our doors, so one of the first opportunities to really put these ideas into effect came earlier this spring. That’s when the aging, creaky code that drove our old company Web site finally started looking inexcusable. So we decided to put some of what we’d learned about XHTML and CSS into effect publicly, and we re-wrote the site from the ground up.
Like many designers, the complications we stumbled across most often can be safely grouped under the banner “Internet Explorer.” Our biggest headache was the so-called “Peek-a-boo Bug” which forced us into some thorny work-arounds, but really it’s all part and parcel of making things work smoothly in multiple browsers.
BL: So I see you’ve used Movable Type to manage your Behavior News section (and even the cool Flash calendar), what drove you to embrace MT over static solutions? Can you talk a bit about how you integrated the entries into Flash?
KV: From our experience, we can build just about any kind cool feature into any Web site, but that’s only one part of the challenge. The second part, especially in a design studio like ours, is putting into place some kind of streamlined, business-sensitive workflow that requires very little ramp up. This makes the solution we’ve built come to life because it actually gets used much more frequently, and I think it’s our attention to this second challenge that really separates us from a lot of our competitors.
This is also where Movable Type and other simple publishing systems truly excel: it provides a very simple, user-friendly front-end that allows just about any authorized person at Behavior to publish news items. I can sit down with anybody with moderate computer experience and show them how Movable Type works, and they’ll get it within 30 minutes, if that long.
And when you combine that with the flexibility of CSS it gets really
powerful. For instance, we’ve written CSS rules that will govern the
float of pictures in the first paragraph of a news item in one way and in the body of the news item another way. That means that publishers can upload pictures too, without having to worry about assigning custom classes or other details that would inhibit their willingness to work with images.
Movable Type handles all of that, and then publishes a simple XML file that is read by our Flash calendar. We’ve done a lot of loading XML into Flash to make it more than just a medium for animation, so it was a fairly easy process to get them to talk to one another. We’d also done a lot of work with PHP, which gives each page “context” so that the Flash movie knows where to focus the calendar (e.g., when you’re viewing a news item from May, the calendar places that month in the center of the navigation and gives it a yellow highlight). So none of the individual parts were difficult, but getting the whole solution together required a bit of planning,
brainstorming and some terrific ingenuity on the part of our design
technologist, who was the one really responsible for making it come to life.
BL: One last question. The archives on your personal weblog, Subtraction, go all the way back to Winter of 2000 — which suggests you were an “early adopter” of weblog technology. Now that more people and companies are familar with this medium, does the phrase “so how about a weblog?” ever get thrown around in client meetings?
KV: It does from time to time, but not as much as I’d like now, or as much as I think the phrase will get thrown around in the next few years. You’re starting to see weblogs come into prominence with traditional industries like the news media, who can relate instantly to the timeliness of weblogs and, frankly, who are threatened by the way weblogs make publishers and journalists out of anyone. But for businesses that operate on a more standard profit and loss model, weblogs will take a bit more selling, and perhaps a bit more time in the public consciousness before they start to see the benefits of using this medium.
What’s more, the weblog tools will need to mature a bit too for this to happen. Specifically, they will need to take on more user-friendly
knowledge management features, will need to allow for better filtering methods. In fact, I think that news feed readers (RSS aggregators etc.) will play a significant role in how weblogs evolve inside of businesses. It’s no accident that browsers are starting to incorporate news reading functionality into their feature sets.
For us, we’ve been helping organizations take advantage of the weblog phenomenon in a kind of roundabout way, by using the tools that make weblogs possible to streamline content management systems. This is a secondary product of the phenomenon, but it’s very, very compelling. We’ve had clients, both large and small, practically jump for joy when they’ve mastered the simplicity of publishing with, say, Movable Type. The business case is remarkable: extreme ease of use and a very reasonable price point, compared to what you might pay for one of the big league CMS packages.
That said, I think there are real and tangible benefits to using weblogs here and now, and in the truest sense of the medium. That is, building a weblog with today’s tools with the purpose of sharing information, enhancing communications and enabling publishing inside the enterprise where it wasn’t possible before. We’ve worked with a few clients that have made serious efforts to use weblogs inside of their operations in the manner I’m describing. These are the kinds of organizations that embrace new technologies smartly, and the ones that will get a leg up on their competitors.