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Something about Ducks and UI

June 24, 2010

This week I’ve been shopping around for a graphics designer to make my site look pretty.  Now, mind you I’ve been making stuff on the web for about 15 years now and got started doing web page design.  However, these days I feel a bit more comfortable doing the techie backend stuff and think I should be leaving the cutesy Photoshop tricks to the professionals.   Having a background in web design probably just makes matters worse, however, since now I’m sure not gonna pay for anything I could do myself.  I consider myself an HTML/CSS expert, and can put together a nice layout using W3C compliant, XHTML that displays nicely in pretty much every modern browser out there (except IE6, @#$! you IE6!).  If I had the time.  As far as graphics, I have some basic Photoshop skillz but nothing that I’d put on a résumé.

This leads me to think I should be focusing my search on a skilled designer with exceptional graphics talent.  Over the past few months I’ve been dreaming of this awesome KitchenPC interface that just boggles the mind with its pure brilliance.  So far this week, it just feels like I’ve been slapped in the face by the cold, harsh hand of reality.

On the bright side, I’m starting to really learn what it is that I like.  What makes you say “wow” when you see a site you really enjoy looking at?  For me, I’ve learned the more Mac like it is, the better.  I like Mac style fonts, I like rounded corners, I like bright colors and I like the use of opacity and gradients.

One site I’ve totally fallen in love with this week is http://icondock.com/.  I think the main thing I like about it is the fact I can really see my UI working with this layout.  Imagine the horizontally scrollable icon samples to be suggested recipes instead.  And the user could drag them over to the “checkout” (which in my case would be a shopping list widget) to instantly create shopping lists.  The text below could be a newsfeed, that would update in real time, keeping you informed on your friends’ activities.  I also really love the colorful center graphic with the icons flying out of the cardboard box, and the rounded top navigation bar with the integrated search box.  This site has been my ideal as far as good site design.

There’s a couple other great sites I’ve found recently too.  I’m sure the owners don’t mind the plugs.  One is gist.com.  The front page looks great and uses some nice looking alpha-blending towards the bottom creating that “reflective” look.  Once again, the UI is very rounded in nature and doesn’t really have any sharp corners for kids to run into and get hurt.  The fonts are pleasant, the design is very simple, and they have a very cool graphic that catches the eye.  I have no idea what these guys actually do, but that’s beside the point.

Another one is lifecellar.com.  They lose a few points for having a Flash animation on their page, as I use a Flash blocker and hate to have to manually allow Flash just to see what I’m missing.  This particular animation, seems to me, could be an animated gif.  However, once again the fonts are nice and they use a lot of rounded corners.  Most of their backgrounds make good use of gradients to add a professional feel to the layout.  Their icons are probably all stock, but it works for them in this case.  I also like how if I move the mouse over one of the top icons, a little description fades in.  Fadey things excite me.

Ok so now I know what I like.  So now for the hard part.  Finding a designer that works within my budget and can deliver something like one of these sites.  Searching for graphics designers on the web is like finding a piece of hay in a haystack.  They’re everywhere.  And they all look the same.  Most of the samples in their portfolio do not impress me, as it’s something I could do myself over a weekend.  Why would I pay good money for that?  I did email the Icondock guy, who runs n.design studio.  It’s obvious this guy is talented, especially when it comes to illustrations.  I have a feeling he’d be out of my price range, which is just as well as I never did hear back from him.  I think he’s busy drawing artwork for magazine covers.

I also contacted Filter Talent.  I heard about these guys a few years ago from a friend of mine at Microsoft.  He works on the Windows Embedded team and apparently, Filter is their go-to firm when they need something done.  Since he had a connection there, he made some introductions.  However, I never really followed up though they’ve been sitting in my email box, archived away, for two years now.  I decided to send them a note and see if they’d talk to me.  A guy named Dave called me the next day wanting to set up a phone call.  I didn’t get to that email until about 4am but I sent him a link to my prototype website and a UI spec I’ve been drafting up in Word over the past few days.  The next evening I heard back from him, and he had read my doc and checked out the website.  He was a very nice guy, but after talking to him for about five minutes he interrupted and said, “Mike I have to be honest with you.  I like your idea, but I think the way our company is set up is just not going to be a good fit for you.”  In translation, I believe the response was “We like to deal with big companies like Microsoft and Amazon, we’re looking for six figure bids, and we don’t have time for some guy running a startup in his spare bedroom.”  However, he was very friendly and maybe if I do make it big some day, I’d give them a call again.  For what it’s worth, he said he’d ping me if he ran across any freelance designers who might be interested in the project.

Another company I stumbled across is a firm in the UK called “friendly duck.”  Or something like that, you know I’m still not quite sure what the name of the company is.  They sure love ducks though.  Maybe they actually are ducks.  Anthropomorphic ducks, “pecking” away at Photoshop all day.  I’ve been emailing this company back and forth this week and so far I really like them.  They came up with an estimate within a day, they dug through my site very thoroughly, and they’ve been incredibly responsive to emails.  However, I’m not completely sold on their raw talent.  Their portfolio is a bit limited, with several sites not even online anymore.  The sites I have seen are pretty basic without too much custom design.  I haven’t seen anything really pop at me like Icondock or Gist or Lifecellar.  Their quote is reasonable and within my budget, however it’s still enough money to make me really picky about getting something that wows me.  If they came up with a site that looks like the others in their portfolio, I wouldn’t be too happy.  I’m trying to express this to them without coming across as down right rude, but I need some assurance that I’ll be left satisfied, and I need to let them know where my bar is at, and what sorts of results I’m expecting.  My feelings about them is they’re a small firm that wants to be good, and they’re out there looking to prove themselves.  If they have a masterpiece within them, it hasn’t come out yet but perhaps my project could be that masterpiece.  However, at this point I’m just not sure they fit the “bill” (oooooo bad Mike.)

One more company I’m looking at is run by my old friend Ryan.  Ryan and I used to be moderators on the #HTML IRC channel back in the late 90s.  Ryan sure knew his HTML like no one else, but his Photoshop skills were out of this world.  Ryan lived in the Philippines and ran a little one-man operation called Eyeball Design.  When I was doing my hardware based KitchenPC prototype, I used Ryan to draw up some of the graphics.  Though he was a little slow at times, he did not disappoint.  However, a lot of what he does is very Flash heavy and I’m not sure on his design and layout skills.  I emailed him a few days ago and heard back the next day.  He was very surprised I even remembered who he has!  He’s apparently living in California now, I assume working.  I emailed him back with a link to my site (which he’s logged on according to my database) and a copy of my spec, but I still have yet to hear back from him or have him express any interest in helping with the project.

One option I’ve been considering is having the duck people take the project, and then paying Ryan a bit of extra cash to come up with a few random original graphics here and there to spruce up the site a bit.  This approach might be the best of both words.

Either way, my search continues for the perfect design firm.  I feel I should get at least three quotes before making any decisions, and work on finishing my UI spec and rough sketches for a final, beta quality UI.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

Mike

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