This is Aaron Rester's blog:

Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Saturday, May 31, 2008

What is a Web Professional?

In the title field of pages on my website, you might have noticed me pitching myself with the vaguest of job titles: "web professional." If you had nothing better to do, you might even have wondered what that means. And given the number of friends and family who don't seem to have the foggiest notion of what I do, and my many colleagues at the University who can't figure out the difference between "the web guy" and "the IT guy," it seems to be a fair question.

So what exactly do I mean by a "web professional? Quite simply, it's someone who makes their living building and/or managing websites. Back in the bad old days there was really only one necessary skill set for people who worked on the web (coding HTML) and one job title ("webmaster," or if they wanted to be fancy, "web designer"). But as websites and the technology that drives them have become more and more complex, the number of skills that one needs to have just to keep one's ahead above water has ballooned.

As with any growing field, some practitioners become specialists in one area while others take a jack-of-all-trades generalist approach. But there are certain areas that I think every web professional must occasionally dip their toes into, whether they like it or not. The best web professionals will have skills in some or all of these diverse fields:

User Experience Design. The core goal of every website is to allow communication between the website visitor (or user) and the organization or individual behind the website. It is essential that everyone involved in websites have an understanding of how their users (or intended users) interact with websites, and how they can help those users find the information they are looking for (and thereby increase the chance that they will perform the actions that you hope they will take). Improving the user's experience should be the core of every decision made in the creation and evolution of a website.

At the core of user experience design is information architecture -- figuring out how the information you are presenting to the world fits together. This includes things like being able to create intuitive navigational categories and making sure that a user will have all the information needed to complete a given task.

Closely related to information architecture is interface design; this is the "look-and-feel" of the site. A perfectly planned-out information architecture isn't much use if you can't provide the user with visual cues about how that architecture works. Interface design should also include a solid grasp of semantic markup and CSS, so that the content can be accessed and understood even by those who can't see the visual design of the page due to disability or the size of their screen.

Content Production. Skills in writing and copy-editing are extraordinarily important for web professionals. Almost everyone who works on the web will find themselves responsible for writing content at some point, and without quality content even the most well-designed website is essentially useless. Ideally, content should be written in a style suitable for the web; short paragraphs and the appropriate use of lists to make text easily scannable are key.

Programming & Development. Code geeks are what most people tend to think of when they think about web professionals. Developers are the ones that make the web work, inventing new technologies and exploring the limits of existing ones to create exciting web applications. Even if they are not developers, most web professionals wind up having to learn at least a little PHP or some other programming language, if for no other reason than the fact that they have to be able to communicate with their techies and be able to know what is possible and what is not.

Multimedia Production. Audio and video are no longer fun extras; they are expected forms of content delivery for most types of website. Web professionals are increasingly having to learn how to create, edit, and deploy this content.

Octopus Wrangling. Increasingly, organizations' web presences are no longer confined to their own website. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, and other outlets for user-generated content have created the opportunity to have multiple web presences, sending your content slithering out to find interested users without them having to find you (some have called this the "social media starfish," but I prefer the octopus metaphor -- it's creepier). Today's web professionals not only have to figure out the best ways to adapt a particular tentacle's technology to their organization's marketing strategies, but they also have to keep tabs on a rapidly exploding field and recognize which new social media have staying power and are worth the investment of time and work hours.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Typographer's Dilemma

One of the greatest frustrations for those of us working in web design is the incredibly small number of typefaces available for us to work with. Web browsers can only display text in fonts that are already installed on the user's computer, and since only a handful of fonts are installed on almost every computer the designer's palette is limited. Of course, people have found ways around this -- first by making type as images (which unfortunately renders that type unsearchable and less accessible to those with disabilities), and then by using techniques such as sIFR (which requires the user to have the Flash plug-in installed in their browser).

The holy grail for web designers, then, is the ability to embed font files themselves in a web page so that anyone who views the page can see the text in the intended font, whether or not they have the font installed on their computer (see a proof of concept here). I think it is inevitable that this will happen eventually, but it raises the question of how font designers and type foundries will be paid for the work they do. Right now, as I understand it, they get paid by licensing their fonts to be included in operating systems (Mac, Windows) or software (e.g. Adobe's applications), or individual users can purchase the rights to purchase a font file and use the typeface in personal or commercial products. But if the fonts are essentially downloadable at any time by anyone for free, where is the incentive for type designers to continue investing the considerable amount of care and time necessary for producing a quality font?

In a lot of ways font designers and type foundries find themselves in situations similar to those of musicians and record companies. Because fonts are digital files they are, like .mp3s, incredibly easy to copy and redistribute (or "pirate," as the RIAA would have it). It must not be possible to include digital rights management (DRM) measures in font files, or I'm sure the big foundries would have done so already. Instead, font producers try to cover their costs by charging astronomical sums to those who do wish to use them legally (non-designers might be surprised to learn that individual fonts can often cost up to $400), just as prices for legally purchased music have failed to fall appreciably, despite the fact that the cost of distributing that music is approaching zero. Both industries, it seems, are locked into pre-Internet business models that lead only to the frustrated customers -- and, as a result, "stolen" files.

How then, might type designers adapt to new distribution models in a way that would both satisfy their customers and make money in the coming age of embeddable fonts? The changing music industry may be a model for the solution, as well as the problem.

  1. Sell fonts as a loss leader for other services. Just as many musicians have had to begin thinking of recorded music not as their primary product, but as a way to promote their other services (touring and performing) and products (merchandise), so font designers could use free versions of their fonts as promotional tools for any number of other services and products, from printing to web design to (in Adobe's case) software.

  2. Free version/Pro version. Some font designers already do this, allowing free use of "lite" versions of their fonts for personal use, and requiring licenses for commercial use. This is not unlike the recent experiments by Radiohead (with their "In Rainbows" album and Nine Inch Nails (with their album "Ghosts," among others), where basic .mp3s were made available for free with the hopes that the artists could recoup their costs from more elaborate packagings of the material (hi-fidelity box sets, for example).

  3. License their fonts to browser manufacturers. In the same way that font designers license their products to companies like Adobe, they could strike deals with browser manufacturers to package them in browser software. Unfortunately, I can imagine there might be problems getting licenses for opensource browsers such as Firefox.

  4. Taxes. The most controversial means of font designers recouping costs on illegally shared font files might be something like that proposed to get record companies a share of money from their pirated music files: a tax on internet connections, to be charged by Internet service providers, which could then be distributed among the people who own the legal rights to files (see here and here. There is a significant downside of this plan, in that the logistics of distributing the revenues it generated would probably be quite difficult; however, it would likely be less difficult to implement than the licensing fees charged by performing rights organizations like BMI and ASCAP to live music venues, which allows any performer in those venues to play songs to which they do not own the rights. Moreover, it would both allow web designers and website users to have access to a much greater variety of typefaces and ensure that designers of those typefaces would be compensated for their work.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Presentations: Podcasting & New Media

Late last year, along with Renee Basick, the Interim Director of the Chicago Media Iniatives Group, I did a couple of presentations on podcasting and new media. The first, entitled "An Introduction to Podcasting," was presented in November to a group of University of Chicago IT folks as part of the University's "Get IT Together" initiative. The presentation was (gulp) video-recorded, and you can watch it below. In it, Renee and I address the logistical and technological issues surrounding starting a podcasting initiative in a higher education environment, using my experience in starting the CHIASMOS program as a case study. The advance publicity for this presentation may be the first and only time anyone has ever referred to me as an expert in anything.




The second presentation, "Embracing Web 2.0 and New Media Communications," which was an expanded version of the presentation in November, was presented at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education District V's annual conference in December. While this one wasn't recorded, you can check out our slideshow below. If you download the prsentation, you can also read our notes that went along with it (which will make a lot more sense than just looking at the slides).