Ben Crowder

Blog: #working-in-public

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Blog-driven productivity

New experiment: blog-driven productivity.

Ordinarily I work on projects and then, when they’re done, I post about them. Occasionally I post about work in progress (something I’m trying to do better at as part of working in public). In both cases, though, the project work comes first.

This idea flips that around: start writing the blog post first, from the perspective of your future self after you’ve already finished the project. Then do whatever backfill work is needed to turn the post from optimistic lie to settled truth. (And when the work is actually done, publish the post.)

My brain tends to think of it as an extremely loose analog to test-driven development in software engineering.

It’s not anything particularly novel, but it intrigues me and who knows, maybe there’s something there. (In some cases, for some people, your mileage may vary, etc.)

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Release bundles reborn

Starting now, I’m going to batch releases of my art/writing/etc., posting things only at the beginning of each month. I did this back in 2014–2015 for four or five months, and I think it’s a good fit for me again.

Arbitrary reasons for doing it (acknowledging that it would be just as easy to argue convincingly in the other direction):

  • To focus more. By not thinking as often about posting work (speaking mainly of art here since that’s primarily what I’ve been doing lately), I’ll hopefully be able to focus more on the work itself and less on its reception.
  • To slow down. Being able to release finished work immediately is a magical and wonderful part of the Internet, but I think some detachment can be helpful, giving ample time to assess and reassess the work and to polish it further before finally posting it. (I have regrets. Not many, but I do have some.)
  • I don’t know that batching will actually make this happen, but: to work more on somewhat larger projects that take more time. My current working theory, however, is that immediate release cycles encourage me to optimize toward projects I can finish as quickly as possible. The experiment is to see if slowing the release cycle down makes an actual difference there or not. It may not. I may just be lazy and ill-suited for large projects.
  • To write more blog posts that aren’t just release posts. Or, failing that, to at least make the blog feel less like a neverending train of releases and navel-gazing meta posts. (I do believe I’m yearning for the old days, when I wrote “real” posts. We’ll see if the essayist in me still lives.)

Rules I’m arbitrarily giving myself in this experiment, and other tacked-on miscellaneous thoughts that I didn’t want to start a new list for:

  • I’ll post each bundle on the first day of each month, or the second day if the first is a Sunday. (I’m calling these batches “release bundles,” by the way.)
  • A project has to have been finished for at least a week before I can release it — so anything finished during the last week of the month will go out a month later.
  • There’s no set end date for now. If it works well, I’ll hopefully keep doing it for a long time. If it inhibits the old creativity, I’ll stop.
  • I’m not sure yet whether I’ll write about in-progress projects during the month. Lately I’ve found myself harboring some misgivings about working in public, or at least some parts of it, and I need to soul search and figure out what I’m comfortable with and what makes the most sense for me and my introvert self.

Here we go. Next releases will be on March 1.

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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.)


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.)


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


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.


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


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.)


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


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:


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):


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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Links #30

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After twelve years at the library, I’ve realized it’s time for a change and have started looking for another job. Doing this during a global pandemic is a little daunting, but it feels like the right time.

As part of this, I’m experimenting with what I’m calling a more humane resume. It’s basically a short list of relevant data points, with room to explain a little more about what I do and what I’m looking for. My hope is that it makes it easier for potential employers to see whether I’d be a good fit.

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As a spur to get myself writing more, I’ve put up a new writing statistics page. There you can see in all its wilted glory how little I’ve written over the years.

Or how little I’ve finished, I should say — and that’s the main change here. By tracking actual published words, I’m hoping this sparks much more finishing and publishing. And by “publish” I still mean publishing here on this site. I imagine down the road I may submit pieces elsewhere, but for now I’m content with the small scale.

This brain hack is already working. Last week I hardly worked on the novel at all, but after putting this page up I’ve found myself fully back in the throes of editing, since finishing and publishing a 65,000-word novel — the first draft of which is already complete — seems the best way right now to push 2020’s zero up to a more impressive number. And now I have compelling motivation to make sure I get this thing edited before the end of the year.

Also, inspired by the colophon in Cory Doctorow’s Pluralist newsletter, I’ll probably add daily or weekly drafting word counts to the page soon, as further motivation to keep writing each day. Public shaming works wonders! (More seriously: while the idea of posting these kinds of metrics would have mortified me a year or two ago, I’m glad I’ve gotten round that obstacle. Working in public has been wonderfully freeing.)

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Links #17

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My subconscious seems to be on a quest to turn this blog into more of a magazine, with regular columns and all. (Watch out, before you know it I’ll be calling myself editor-in-chief of this rag.)

In that vein, I’ve been thinking about starting a recurring (if infrequent, speaking realistically) Q&A section. This’ll be another experiment, of course, like office hours, and again in the spirit of working in public.

So: if you have any questions you’d like to see me answer here in public, email me your question with “Q&A” in the subject, and also let me know whether you’re okay with your first name accompanying the question.

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Some quick thoughts about the project space I see myself working in (meaning personal coding projects that aren’t the productivity tools I mentioned before), both now and for the foreseeable future. To be honest, it’s mostly a roadmap for myself, posted here as part of working in public.

Bookmaking tools

One of the areas in the project space is bookmaking tools: tools that help with making either print books or ebooks. What I’ve worked on in that area (and some of these are still in progress or in the future):

  • Press — low-level typesetting (PDF compiler)
  • Ink — higher-level typesetting
  • Curves — programmatic type design
  • Typlate — type design templates
  • md2epub/Caxton — ebook compiler
  • epubdiff — ebook differ
  • Fledge — text processing shell
  • Storybook — writing tool (covered under the productivity tools, yes, but I feel it fits in here)

Creativity tools

The next area, somewhat related, is creativity tools: tools for making art, music, etc. I do realize that there’s a bit of overlap between the two areas — art can be used in books, for example. This is not a rigorous taxonomy.

What I’ve worked on:

  • Trill — music composition REPL
  • Grain — command-line tool for texturing art

While I haven’t done much in this area so far, the intersection of software and art has been calling to me more lately. I expect creativity tools to become much more of a focus for me, probably even more so than the bookmaking tools.

Human-Computer Interaction

Last but not least, HCI. My master’s thesis is in this area, and much of my other work also touches on it in limited ways. (What I mean by that, I think, is that with projects like Trill, Curves, and Press, the parts that have most interested me are the interfaces. Also, those interfaces have been textual in these particular cases, but I’m also interested in other kinds of UIs.) So I plan to start building more proofs of concept and interface experiments — like the spatial interface ideas I mentioned several weeks ago.

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Time for a short report on office hours in practice: I’ve held three sessions so far and all have been great, at least from my perspective. Interesting conversations, good questions, and it’s been as humanizing as I had hoped.

Some of the people included (in their initial email) a list of things to talk about, which was nice, but I don’t think I want to make that a requirement.

I’ve also realized that I don’t like talking about politics, so that’s now off the table for these. (The political conversation that I had, though, was fine and civil and not a problem at all, to be clear.)

While it’s only been a week and my sample size to date is still fairly small, as of today I consider this office hours idea to be a great success. Definitely planning to keep doing it.

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