making bread

Always Be Producing

If you want to know the secret to making a name for yourself, it’s pretty simple. My stepdaughter learned this hard lesson last year in fifth grade when she was vying for an award in school for “language arts” or whatever the term is used for English these days. She’s an amazingly prolific reader already and has an enviable vocabulary, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering her home environment, and was very excited to have her name called up to the podium on honors day last year. But in the end, it was her classmate Molly who took home the gold. What happened?

Molly likes to write. A lot. She produces. She writes articles for the school paper. She writes pieces on her own time and shows them to her teacher. She creates and converts her consumption into a value-added product for others to enjoy. It’s not enough to simply consume, which seems reasonable when you think about it. No one gets awards for watching TV or surfing the internet. (At least not yet.) You have to produce. Whether it’s in sales, design, music, development, blogging, or whatever, you must be creating and putting it out there in quantity and quality. And many people believe quantity directly leads to quality, and there are solid arguments for this. Picasso has over 17,000 works of art for example, but not all were masterpieces. Ask anyone at the top of their game how much they’ve practiced and work they’ve pounded out, and most people are shocked. It’s a LOT.

Bloggers take this to heart, and many writers have committed themselves to daily blogging. One of my favorites, Tom McFarlin, has been cranking out an article a day this year with no breathers, and his work is getting better, and I have no doubt his stats and audience has grown substantially as a result. Even if every article isn’t a home-run, they all offer something of value, even if it’s just an opinion or to spotlight a dev tool he uses. And the days you don’t feel like it at all, are the days you need to most do it. ABP. Always Be Producing. The more consistently, the better. It’s a reason so many bands come out strong with their first album, and then are never heard from again, and why artists like Dave Matthews or The Beatles go on to make truckloads of money and grow their fanbase over many decades. They have the ability to produce consistently, again and again and again.

Point is, I hear many people wonder why their business isn’t growing, their online stats aren’t taking off or they aren’t getting the accolades they believe they deserve. “Why am I not getting noticed?” Well, the question is, are you really producing? Are you shipping code? Are you creating value? If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘sometimes,’ that’s not going to cut it. Focus on consistent production, and the many seeds you sow will provide some incredible yields.


Use Git in Sublime Text

Working alone has its benefits. It also has a few disadvantages. One being that I’m not always surrounded by people, much less designers or developers, to share ideas, get feedback and tips and tricks from. It makes a difference, in that I’m left to hustle, but I do it.

That’s why I love finding BIG advances for my workflow. I use Sublime Text 3 as a code editor, alongside PhpStorm, which is a great IDE, and came across this plugin that’s going to rock my world.

As the talented guys at Scotch Development put it:

Git is integrated so seamlessly you don’t even realize it’s a plugin. It can do essentially anything you normally would do with Git all from within Sublime.

Being able to bypass BASH will be awesome, although I’m a big fan of using the command line. It’ll just cut those steps out.

Some of the common commands you can use are:

  • git init
  • git add
  • git remove
  • git commit
  • git pull
  • git push
  • git log
  • git diff
  • git checkout
  • git checkout
  • git branch


Design is Art and Science (and More)

This very nice video by Matt Greenwood has been making the rounds, and stirring up some debate with the closing remarks:

“design is not science. just move things around until it feels right.”

My guess is those in the “design is science” camp are the ones that attended some type of art school, and possibly studied design of some sort. Many others are likely in the “self-taught” category. Then you have the rest, like me, that have also studied art and design and what-not in studios and classrooms and darkrooms, and turned experience and what talent God gave me to develop into a career.

I personally happen to believe that although learning fundamentals is important, when all is said and done, either you’ve got it or you don’t. Going to school and studying concepts and foundations can only take you so far, and a lot of that is being able to discuss design intelligently. People may not know the word “symmetry” but I know people recognize it and like it, even if they can’t articulate it, for example.

I have an aunt who studied interior design and earned a degree in it, in fact. Her taste, to me at least, is incredible and has a great eye. She just knows where to put things and what goes with what, but I’ve even heard her comment that some people are just born with it and some aren’t. Those who were, and were able to expound upon it by attending school are in good shape. But simply knowing the foundations, and the principles shown in this video, don’t ensure you’re going to be any good.

Yes, design is science in that it can be repeated in controlled environments, but that viewpoint doesn’t take into account the emotions and feeling artists can elicit by doing something a certain way. That’s on a more personal and emotional level. That’s that “art” part of it that’s so important. Much like untrained musicians can evoke feelings and write great songs via experience and soul, I believe designers can “sense” good design innately. Design also includes functionality as well as form, and we’re all human with similar needs and wants in that department.

Elements of Design from matt greenwood on Vimeo.

What do you think? Is design a science?

navin johnson - designer, developer

The Paid v. Free WordPress Themes Myth Debunked

Don’t buy the hype.

As I opened one of the many emails I receive daily concerning WordPress, WordPress themes, WordPress as a service, WordPress products, and everything imaginable to do with WordPress, I saw an article title that I see a lot, in some form or another.

n Reasons Why You Shouldn’t use Free WordPress Themes or Plugins

These lists, usually, are authored, usually, by theme shop developers, and the more I thought about it, their points are really marketing bunk. So I’m going to debunk them, because overall, it makes the free plugin and theme developers look like a seamy underbelly peddling themes from some back alley, where heroin addicted devs are trading their free themes for Starbucks cards.

Anyone who has been working around WordPress any length of time knows this stance is not true.

I’ll knock out the most common “reasons” you’ll read why you should only use premium themes and plugins.

“They’re poorly coded.”

The free themes (of which there 2,614 as of this writing) you find on the WordPress repository must pass a litany of requirements and are all personally screened by theme experts to make sure they conform to not only W3C standards, but WordPress’ own standards. In other words, their free themes are highly scrutinized and must pass tests to be admitted into the repository. You can look at the theme authors’ credentials, see user reviews, see when they were updated, see how many support threads have been resolved and more, for every theme.

Paid themes, a.k.a. 3rd party themes or ‘premium’ themes, do not have to be tested, approved, and are actually under less regulation than the free WP themes. None, in fact.

Point: Free themes. Bonus: over 2600 of them to choose from, searchable, saveable, and all in one place.

“There’s no support”

WordPress maintains a forum, which in itself is a master reference if you ever have a question. Additionally, there are entire websites devoted to WordPress issues, like Stackexchange/WordPress, WordPress Questions, and so on. Also, there is a Q & A ability for each theme author in the repo to interact with the devs if there are any questions or issues. Additionally, you can see how many help tickets have been opened and how many closed within the past few months, to get an idea of how involved the authors are, and the last time the theme or plugin was updated.

You don’t get any, or much, of that with paid themes. And to say you offer support is one thing. There’s no assurance it’s good support. Or the owner deciding to take a year vacation.

Point: Free themes

“Premium Themes are Original. All Free Themes Look Alike”

As pointed out earlier, there are over 2,600 customizable free themes, just on the WordPress repo alone. With the default options in the WP customizer, you already have a world of basic customizations available. If you know a little CSS, you can do anything you want with the stylesheet and JetPack-sponsored ‘Edit CSS’ module(which is surprisingly good), and don’t even have to build a child theme. (Which, of course, you always want to do if ever plan on updating your site, which is highly recommended). Jetpack, incidentally, has been downloaded 11 million times, and is totally free.

If you know how to build a child theme, or are willing to learn(You can learn to do it in a weekend), the world is your oyster. The only reason your theme would be a clone is if you can’t design, and if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter whether you have a free or paid theme.

Not to mention, do you know how many sites are running the Genesis theme? A LOT. And they’re pretty identifiable.

Tie: You’ll probably want to customize any theme you end up with, paid or free.

“If you want the ‘Latest and Greatest’ Features, You Have to Pay Up”

Apparently a good eCommerce plugin or using HTML5 or schema should cost you something. Don’t tell that to the guys at Authenticity, who make WooCommerce, or Mike Jolley, whose add-ons for WooCommerce are top-notch. Similarly, Yoast’s SEO for WordPress plugin, that’s been downloaded well over 11 million times, is as “cutting-edge” as most “serious bloggers” need.

“Free Plugins aren’t Secure”

There are paid plugins that have vulnerabilities, just like any software, and have had emergency updates issued in panicky emails, believe me. This is a matter of maintenance and frequent updates. This is true for free and paid plugins. This is where caveat emptor comes into play; you have to be the smart consumer and judge if the updates are good enough to let you sleep at night.  You can look at the change logs and on the WP plugin repo, see right there when it was updated and all the relevant info.

In fact, here’s a little story. When the Thesis Theme, which is a premium theme which I believe cost me $79 when I bought it way back when, released version 2.0 in October of 2013, I asked the developer to see the change log, because the was no documentation on how to use it(which is a whole nother story that works against premium themes), he told me “No” because he doesn’t keep stuff like that. I’m skeptical about that comment, to say the least, and if true, doesn’t make him look very thorough. So that’s something to consider.

“It’s Cheaper than Hiring Custom Coders”

Well, yes it is. That’s what “free” means. If the theme/plugin author wants to charge for them, they are free to do that, but using something offered free, in tens of thousands of varieties, is no reason to take a guilt trip. If you need a truly behance website or plugin, you shouldn’t be worrying about free vs. paid themes and plugins anyway.

Point: Free themes, for being free, and an extra point for the “Poor Me” card being played.

“Quality Matters”

This is just an insult to some great developers. Many of the top WordPress developers have premium products available, but offer free ones as well. Justin Tadlock, WooCommerce, Pippin Williamson,  ThemeShaper, and many others are as good as it gets, and whose products and work is highly regarded.

And to those thinking “these are the rantings of a cheapskate,” you are right, however I have, or have had, licenses to a host of premiums themes: Genesis, Thesis, Elegant Themes, Jobify, and more.

But the majority of themes I’ve built for myself, family members, or projects that clients don’t specifically ask for, say, Genesis modifications, I’ll build a child theme for a quality free theme every time. If I like the framework, and the history of the theme, I just saved myself a million hours of work, both past and future. The theme developer can take care of security patches, updates, enhancements, and a ton of stuff that I don’t have to worry about, while I can focus on customizing the appearance, performance and functionality. It’s a win-win, where I’m the one winning both times.  I do this a bunch with the Stargazer theme, for example. And this very website is currently sporting a modified version of the free default WordPress theme, 2014.

If I want it even more bare-bones, it’s the Underscores theme, another free WordPress theme that’s high-quality, updated and secure.

navin johnson - designer, developer

So, save your pennies and go treat everyone to ice cream with the money you just saved. There is absolutely no reason to buy a premium theme, unless you have some financial interest in “Amalgamated WordPress Themes, Incorporated” or like to believe in fables.

Michael Out.
account disabled

Oh, Google, You’re Screwing Me So Badly

This isn’t another post about Google changing their search algorithm and how site stats have fallen, like the internet is chock full of by people who don’t understand sustainable SEO. Just want to announce that first, because that’s the typical expectation with a headline like mine. This is my surprisingly poor involvement with them as their customer, using Google Apps. Which I pay them money for.

I have several websites hosted on WP Engine, you see, and as fine of a job as WP Engine does for me, they don’t offer email capabilities. Given the cost of their service, that’s curious, but not the issue here. As a remedy, I use Google Apps for my email accounts for my business and several other reasons, because Google seemed like a pretty reliable group of fellows. And although their constant tampering with UIs and their massive number of products is a little tiresome, it’s no worse than other problems I could encounter elsewhere. One thing about the web is that as it ages, no one knows what it’s becoming, exactly, so there’s quite a bit of experimentation, which is fine.

So last week my main account they manage for me was disabled, without notice. every attempt to acces it resulted in this screen:

account disabled

This prevents me from accessing my email, my admin dashboard, my analytics, Google Plus, my…well, everything associated with this account. So I begin the task of trying to fix this. That was 5 days ago. Please believe me when I say I’ve tried every method Google suggests to remedy this, and then some other creative ones on top of that. I finally received a response after posting my problem in a forum where I noticed some others had experienced the same misfortune. Finally, a rep from Google emailed me to apologize and get details about the issue, so I gave her everything I could.

I was told eventually in another email from Google the reason this happened was because my site looked like it was “targeted to be hijacked.” What?

I’ve asked for elaboration on that statement, but haven’t gotten a response, which is what I expected. Just another email, a day later, explaining Google takes my security seriously, apparently moreso than customer service, and to go off and create a CNAME record for them and report back and they’ll get to me sometime. Sheesh.

So here we wait…going on a week without service and no real explanation.

Has something like this happened to you with Google? What was your experience like? I must say, I’m glad security is such an issue, but Google’s customer service, other than a lot of troubleshooting web pages, is nil.

UPDATE: August 7, 2014. Well, it’s happened again. And again I can’t get in touch with anyone at Google. I’m going to go ahead and just link to THIS PAGE, which will open a Google support ticket, for next time.

homemade pickles

How to Make Pickles

Here’s how to make some good homemade pickles. An Australian acquaintance of mine claims his only experience with “pickles” are those flaccid, slimy green discs McDonalds puts on their “burgers.” And if that wasn’t bad enough, he states that they usually are memorialized by tossing them against the wall of the restaurant’s dining area rather than eating them. Sounds about right.

So, in a brief, random post, I’ll tell you how to make pickles. It’s one of those recipes that I have in my head, like boiling peanuts or chicken bog–all of these are southern staples–, so the ingredient quantities depend on personal taste, but I break it down so everything is easily divisible. This makes 6 jars because that’s how jars come boxed.

What you need:

Of course you need some good pickling cucumbers. Grow them yourself, get them at your farmer’s market, or ask some of your gardeny neighbors if they wouldn’t mind growing them for you, but use fresh cukes.

For the brine:

    A handful/bunch of dill
    6 hot peppers(you choose the heat level)
    12 cloves of garlic(I like love garlic)
    6 slices of an onion
    6 tsp whole spices (that’s what they’re called, or “pickling spices”)
    6 lumps of alum
    1 quart cider vinegar
    2 quarts of water
    1 cup of salt

Enough sterilized bell pickling jars or mason jars with clean lids. Usually six(6) 1 quart jars.

1) Wash the cucumbers.

2) Set up your jars and in the bottom of each of them place:

    1/6 of the dill
    1 hot pepper
    1 tsp of the spices
    2 garlic cloves
    1 onion slice
    A small lump of alum

3) Put your cucumbers in the jars. You’ll want to bring the brine(vinegar, water and salt) to a boil.

4) Pour into the jars, seal immediately, and that’s it!

wacom tablet intuos5

Going All In with My Wacom Tablet

If you use a Wacom tablet, you know how awesome they are. I have an Intuos5 (medium) and I cherish it. Basic usage of them is easy enough, but using them to their full potential takes practice. And more practice. Funny, the model name is Intuos(I presume a marketing spin on the word “intuitive”) and they aren’t exactly intuitive to use.

But learning to use them is very much worth it. Of course I’m saying that as someone who’s essentially being forced to use my tablet full-time. My wireless mouse began having hiccups, so I switched back to a wired Dell mouse, which was a piece of junk. So I’ve made the decision to just use the tablet for everything, which should yield some rewards. I use it for graphics programs, of course, but would switch around, and I’ve never really gotten a good grasp of all the controls and buttons, dial, and features tablets offer. Seems like a waste. It’s a waste. It’s like having a Porsche and never leaving the driveway.

My wrist is already thanking me. I’m becoming much more precise with a stylus. As someone who believes tools make all the difference, the versatility of this tablet blows a mouse out of the water. As a designer and developer, you have to master your tools. There’s no way around it.

Customizable buttons on the tablet and mouse allow you to do anything you want, and you can assign buttons for specific applications, so for Photoshop you can have them do one set of commands, then in Illustrator, another, then…well, you get the picture. And it’s wireless, so I can lay on the couch across the room and work if I wanted. But having it next to the keyboard is much more powerful, and together I’m finding a really great workflow. So, in this case, I’e got some nice lemonade from the lemons my mice gave me.

wacom tablet

Is your website from the "disco-era?"

Signs Your Website Needs Help

Always amazed at some of the things I come across when people come to me with website issues, some things always seem the same. Here are some of the most common issues I come across that need to be addressed pronto, which are very good signs your website needs help.

See if any sound familiar to you:

  1. Frankensites that are cobbled together. Passed from designer and developer to another again and again, there’s poor integration, poor security, heavy load times, outdated plugins and a host of other problems this situation causes.
  2. No social media. Or if the opportunity is there, it’s not used properly, if at all. Users can’t engage, can’t share, and as a result your traffic is stagnant.
  3. Flash. Don’t use it. Animated intros and other such annoyances are played.
  4. Tables. See above.
  5. Your call to action is clunky and ineffective. There’s a way to do this right, and a million ways to do it wrong.
  6. Basic site updates require a committee meeting. You really should be able to either update your site yourself or have a system in place to do it automatically. You shouldn’t be calling your designer or developer for every little thing these days.
  7. Your website isn’t responsive. Meaning it fails on tablets, phones and other mobile devices. You simply can’t afford to ignore mobile traffic, or your users will ignore you.

The right tool makes all the difference, and usually not only means an easier time, but is the flat-out difference between success and failure. Your website is a tool. Use the best, meaning the most appropriate and up-to-date, that you can. Don’t be serving your users disco music.


Oh Yeah: Fixed my Computer. Slap It!

My new invention? A rubber hand on a springy arm you clamp to your desk to high-five when you work alone like I do. Also in fist-bump models for hermits people that prefer that approach.

What I’m celebrating is that I just revived my work computer from being WAY past the point of no return with frighteningly complicated problems, rendering it on life support. I have an iPhone and iPad and 2 old laptops, and with my wife and stepdaughter’s toys, have access to a Best Buy’s worth of screenery. But none of it has the Lance Armstrong-strength juice I need to run Photoshop, Illustrator, Sublime Text, PHPStorm, Chrome and Chrome Canary, FF, Filezilla, and everything else I do concurrently. Plus I develop locally, and have a lot of files associated with this machine. It’s a total workhorse that was built for web design and has been finely tweaked over the 2 years I’ve now had it. At one point I had no operating system, messed up BIOS, no backups to be found, no way to restore, no Windows 7 disc, and a host of other things that had me worried I’d have to just take it to a shop. I didn’t want that defeat for several reasons.

I’ve been working on it for 6 days straight now, and finally fixed it. Some problems that were getting much more close to the metal than I’m used to, and I have to troubleshoot people’s computers ALL the time.

I can’t even remember what the root problem was. I imagine if I did this for a living, which would be torture to me, I’d keep a log and journal of what I do. But since I’m front end, I’m very used to being able to make mistakes and undo them easily. That isn’t always the case for the back end, and it’s easy to find yourself just making matters worse. Trust me.

People seem to think that since I work on a computer, I know everything about all computers and everything technological dating back to 1760 and I can use an abacus and astrolabe if required. I’d like to have that knowledge in my noggin, but I don’t. I’m a good researcher and solver of problems, but there’s no way anyone could ever know all that. Or would want try to, it changes so rapidly. Trust me on that, too.

This was the worst computer issue I’ve had, and I just fixed it. I won’t get into the technical aspects. But it’s a gigantic problem for me when that happens. I had to apologize to clients, inconvenience them, and it affects my time, income and reputation.

Anyway, I now know what  a surgeon feels when he reconstitutes a flat-lined patient on the operating table.

Fixed it, baby!

control room

My Best Client Ever

I landed my best client ever today: my wife.

For some reason, some people and companies think universities are on the cutting edge in many ways that they really aren’t. Technology is a big one. It’s expensive, plus anything involving money has to be approved by a dozen committees. And the roll-out of a tech upgrade is a pretty massive project, even at the smallest little liberal arts school, much less a huge state university system.

Social Media is another area that higher education is having a hard time keeping up with. My wife, a marketing professor, is just now incorporating social media into her research, and she’s among very few that are publishing about it. Yet companies look to the marketing PhDs to answer their questions about social media. They’d probably be better off asking a 14 year old.

She’s also teaching hybrid classes. Part online, part classroom. And that suddenly makes her the technology expert of the marketing department. But by doing that she creates a lot of material for teaching her classes. Time to put that stuff in the cloud.

My wife asking for me to build her a website felt like being asked by a wife to go pick out a sports car for her. Pretty psyched about this. She’s going to have a killer website, and I have all sorts of ideas. Off to find a TLD… Maybe something using the new .marketing.