Ben Crowder

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Another in-progress bit of design, this time from a writing app I’m working on. (Which I’m thinking of as a potential replacement for Storybook.)

Panes

One of the core ideas I want to explore with this app is a pane-based layout system, similar to what you get in Blender and After Effects, and in tiling window managers. Here’s what Blender looks like:

blender.png

There’s a lot going on there, but fundamentally it’s just panes. You can split a pane, merge it with another, resize panes, and change the type and/or contents of a pane.

There is also usually the idea of a workspace, where you can switch between different pane layouts for different types of work. (In Blender, for example, there are workspaces for modeling, shading, animating, compositing, and more.) Photoshop has echoes of this as well, though it’s not fully pane-based.

A brief analysis

Some of the advantages of panes (at least in my mind):

  • Flexibility. You can create the workspace you need, with things arranged the way you want.
  • Simplicity. You can see everything in a workspace, with nothing hidden under another window. (This isn’t completely true, though.)
  • Responsive. Because the layout needs to adapt to a variety of configurations, each pane needs to work at pretty much any size.
  • I’m not sure yet what to call this, but you can easily switch between tasks, whether that’s changing a pane briefly or switching workspaces.

And some of the disadvantages of panes:

  • Fiddly. Because it’s malleable, you end up spending more time tweaking the layout.
  • Connected. Resizing a pane resizes the adjacent panes on the other side of the divider.
  • Complexity. There can be (and usually are) panes that you don’t have visible in your workspace, with state about your project. Some things are hidden after all.

Because I’m interested in interface design, and because I’ve long wanted to explore this particular space, I’m going to try applying the pane idea to writing. I’m not sure it’s a good fit, but if it’s not, I want to find out which factors determine that, and which types of activities would be better candidates for a layout system like this.

Panes on mobile

Designing for mobile first, I immediately ran into the hard, cold fact that a phone screen is too small to split into panes.

This got me thinking about what panes do, at a more abstract level. My conclusion: panes let you have multiple things open at a time, in a way that preserves state (where you are in each pane, to use a spatial metaphor).

With that in mind, it seems to me that the closest analogue would be a screen for each pane, with a way to switch between them — similar to the way Safari handles the open tabs in iOS in portrait mode on a phone. This model allows for switching between tasks in a reliable, persistent way on a device with a small screen.

Pane types

I first brainstormed some possible pane types and came up with this tentative list:

  • Draft. Where you do the writing.
  • Outline. A foldable outline or note cards or something in that vein.
  • Feedback. Comments from beta readers and editors.
  • Notes. Your notes on characters, locations, etc.
  • Labels. Working off the idea that you can label a chapter/scene/paragraph, this would be a pane for working with labels (navigating and managing the list of labels, seeing what has been tagged with a given label, etc.).
  • History. A way to see previous drafts. My plan involves a branching model ala Git, though, which would include experimental drafts, so this probably needs to be renamed.

Mobile pane design

I made some quick sketches and considered turning them into a prototype, but going to wireframes instead seemed a better use of my time (it’s much easier to iterate on wireframes).

Here’s the current state of the prototype (made in Figma with variants and auto layout and Smart Animate). It’s not finished, and it’s still a bit rough, but you can at least start to get the idea:

And some of the screens:

quill-pane-prototype.png

Further work

Some of the things I’m thinking about at this point, that I plan to validate and iterate on through testing:

  • Whether the switcher makes sense as an overlay (what we’ve got here) or its own screen. Leaning towards an overlay so that the other panes are near the bottom of the screen, closer to the user’s hand.
  • Whether a right-handed overlay is problematic for left-handed users. (Keeping in mind that the button for the switcher is already on the right side of the screen, and so the user’s finger will already be in the vicinity. But that may not make a difference.)
  • Whether a list like this is the right way to display panes, or if a visual of the actual panes (like the app switcher in iOS) would be better. For visual-based work this makes sense, but for work like writing that’s largely text-based, I’m not sure. This will affect the type of transition used when switching between panes, too.
  • When you add a new pane, what the pane type should be and where it should be navigated to. The same type/contents as the active pane? The same type but reset to the beginning of the project? Some default pane type?
  • Whether switching a pane’s type (by tapping on the pane type icon in the switcher list) makes sense in this context. I believe it does when you’re working with actual panes on a larger screen, but it may not fit.

Once I’ve got this sorted out (by testing and iterating), I’ll follow the same process to design the UI for working with panes at larger screen sizes.


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The initial version of my design portfolio is now live. Whew. Time for a breather over the weekend and then I’ll be diving back in to work on the next case study, a web-based revamp of Curves. It’ll be a new, graphical tool for designing type, and yes, I’m totally re-using the name because a) I never released the old project with the same name (the Python library), and b) there was actually a graphical version that came first (though I don’t know how much of that initial mockup will make it into the new design).


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Links #31


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As I’ve been toiling away on my design portfolio, I realized that a) I haven’t been working in public on this project and b) that ought to change. Which it will. Starting now.

My plan at this point (subject to change) is to design the portfolio site itself first, then post each case study project as I finish it.

The portfolio site

Note: the following is effectively an initial draft of a case study documenting the design of the portfolio itself. It’s a little meta, sure, and I expect to replace it in the portfolio as soon as I have enough other projects, but it’ll do for now. And if reading case studies isn’t your thing, stop here!

Problem definition

The goal: to design a site showing what I do as a designer, both in the case studies showcased as well as the design of the portfolio itself.

The main users of the portfolio will be hiring managers and recruiters, who will be evaluating my work to determine whether they should interview me. From what I’ve read, they’re primarily interested in seeing my design process—how I tackle a project, how I solve problems—and secondarily interested in the quality of the final designs. (There’s more to it than that, but you get the idea.)

Research

I began by doing some lightweight competitor analysis, looking at thirty or so portfolios for UX/product designers, and watching a handful of critique videos. By that point I had a good idea of what ought to be involved—initial text describing what I do and what my experience is, case studies documenting my process, a link to my resume, my contact info—and I felt that the site was small enough that I didn’t need to do more formal research at this point. (On other projects, though, this is where I’d do surveys, interviews, card sorting, tree tests, empathy maps, personas, usability tests, etc., depending on what makes the most sense for the project.)

Sketches

I sketched out some ideas for the nav, starting with mobile first since it’s easier to begin there and scale up to desktop:

portfolio-sketch.jpg

I also sketched out some rough layout ideas, with the main focus on the list of case studies on the home page and the case study detail pages.

Blockframes

Last week I was reading about blockframing and have been itching to try it out, so I did:

portfolio-blockframes.png

It’s great. Easier to work with than wireframes, which helps in the earlier stages. Definitely planning to continue using it. (I should also mention here—for curiosity’s sake if nothing else—that I used Figma for everything past the point of sketching.)

Wireframes

I continued with wireframes, to flesh out the ideas with actual text (placeholder text, anyway):

portfolio-wireframes.png

Crimson Text is the primary font (indeed the only font), which I chose because a humanist (old style) serif seemed like the best fit for my personality and the type of design I do.

Color palette

Next I chose a (very) simple palette:

portfolio-colorpalette.png

Ordinarily, though, I’d need a more complex, organized color scheme.

High-fidelity mockups

And then we come to the high-fidelity mockups (in which the photos are all from Unsplash or Pexels, and the case study text is made up):

portfolio-highfidelity.png

As I applied color, it became clear that the design would benefit from a secondary font, so I added Chivo as a compatible sans-serif. I also added clearer call-to-action links to the individual case study sections on the home page.

What’s next

Doing some small usability tests to make sure the design works, then straight to implementation. I’m planning to skip prototyping for this project because a) it’s so, so small and there’s not much to prototype beyond dead simple link behavior, and b) with this being a personal project, I’ll be doing the frontend development, and the initial implementation there will be a fairly effective prototype.


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Just posted some note paper PDFs which I made in PlotDevice. There’s lined paper — 30 lines/page up to 130 lines/page (for those who write really, really small) — and graph paper — 10×10 up to 140×140.


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Daily goal chart

The only time I’ve had success writing each day has been when I’ve made a physical chart, taped it up on my wall, and then filled in a box each day I hit my goal. It’s Jerry Seinfeld’s don’t break the chain idea, and it works remarkably well for me. My current streak (I don’t write on Sundays):

daily-words.jpg

Since this seemed like it might be useful for others, I’ve made daily goal charts, available for free PDF download:

Daily goal chart

There’s also what I’m calling a “blank” chart, where you can write in the number of words you wrote (or anything else like that):

Blank daily goal chart

Charts for 2018 through 2023 are up. (I figure five years is enough for now.)


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I enjoyed Kenneth Ormandy’s essay on efficient web type circa 1556.


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Quad

Matthew Butterick posted a link today to Quad, his in-development typesetting engine, written in Racket. It’s an attempt to take the best ideas from both LaTeX and web browsers and build a modern, flexible typesetting engine.

The syntax (at least as it stands right now) is naturally very LISPy, and the examples are fairly low-level, but I’m quite interested to see where things go. While I haven’t done much typesetting lately, I’ve been itching to do more in LaTeX and less in InDesign, so that my source files are plain text and not locked into a proprietary format. And some things are more easily done in code. Also, I’ve wanted to share the source files for my work (as I’ve started doing with the PlotDevice sources for my language charts), but putting InDesign files in a GitHub repo just feels wrong. And InDesign isn’t exactly cheap, either.

So, LaTeX for now, and possibly Quad once it’s matured a bit.


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Home teaching slips

I’m currently serving as elders quorum president in my ward, which means home teaching changes every couple months or so. I’ve been bad about printing out slips because it took too long to make them (I don’t really like the default MLS style, so I was doing it by hand in Excel), but I finally buckled down and wrote a PlotDevice script that takes the assignments in easy-to-write YAML and outputs PDFs, one page per file (because I haven’t been able to get it to output to just a single PDF).

Here’s what it looks like, with dummy data:

home-teaching-slips.png

The code is on GitHub. It’s somewhat messy right now, but it works.


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A better OpenType user interface

I like Kris Sowersby’s suggestions for a more ideal OpenType user interface in document design apps like InDesign.


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