posted by Matt Ward on Sep 26, 2009.
In the past three years I have moved from a rank amateur designer to what I like to think of as a reasonably skilled and proficient digital artist. In this post, I look at six different technologies that have changed my life and helped me make the transition.
In the spring of 2006, I graduated from University (for the second time) my Master’s degree in English Literature. As fate would have it, within a matter of weeks, I was working full time at Highland Marketing, primarily in the area of web and graphics design. Who knew…
Actually, I had been doing this sort of stuff since 2000, when I graduated from high school. I’ve always been artistic and good with computers, so when I started working at Highland Marketing (a job I got because my father owns and operates the company), those were the skills that had the greatest value. I had also done a bit of work with Corel Draw in a couple of my high school classes, so I spent a lot of time doing getting my feet wet with some really basic and primitive design stuff.
By my 2006 graduation, I had been maintaining the website and doing some really basic graphic stuff off and on, usually during my summers. Being finished university, though, and looking at starting to work full time, I decided to really take the time to learn and invest myself in learning about graphics design in more detail.
That was just over three years ago. Today, I want to look at six technologies that I have been introduced over that time period, and which have ultimately changed my life, at least in terms of design.
1. Cascading Style Sheets
Okay, I admit it – there was a time when I actually did use… tables… to structure my website (oh how it hurts). That’s right, stupidly massive tables that contained all of my content. In retrospect those were dark days for me. Dark days, indeed.
So, one of the first things that I did when I started to really learn about design – in this case, design for the web – was to dedicate myself to actually learning CSS. I had learned to use some basic classes and such, but I really didn’t understand it as a technology. So, I took a trip to one of our local book stores and picked up Charlie Wyke-Smith’s Stylin’ with CSS, which I proceeded to read from cover to cover.
It was like a revelation.
The book taught me the purpose of CSS – to help separate presentation from content – and precisely how to write vastly more efficient style sheets that interact with properly coded HTML. It forever transformed the way that I approached web design and actually made coding a vastly more pleasant task (no more updating hundreds of font tags).
Today I use styles for absolutely everything I can, and spend a lot of time carefully crafting and tweaking the style sheets for the websites that I design. It has also opened up an entire new realm of design possibilities, since there is so much more that you can do with CSS than you could every have dreamed with bulky and awkward presentation-based HTML.
2. Adobe Creative Suite
As I mentioned before, I did have some experience with Corel Draw, and when I first started doing some graphics at Highland Marketing, they purchased me a copy of Corel Draw 8, which came packaged with Corel Photo-Paint. For years I did all of my graphics work in those two applications. I even did a few brochure designs in Draw, which, in retrospect, was a design nightmare.
Eventually, though, I upgraded to Creative Suite 2, and like learning CSS, that turned out to be a revelation. I basically started with what, for me, is the great trinity of design – Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign. Of the three, InDesign came the most naturally (probably because I had never used a page layout program before). After that, it was Photoshop. The most difficult adjustment was moving into Illustrator, which functioned so much differently from Corel Draw.
Today, though, I know my way around those programs very well. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a master, but I am actively writing tutorials for both Illustrator and Photoshop, and I use the programs on pretty much a daily basis, often in tandem. I don’t use InDesign quite as frequently, but it remains my application of choice whenever I have a design that involves a lot of text.
So, basically, these three programs form the very foundation of all the visual design that I do. As such, I guess it’s easy to see how they changed my life. Without them, I’m not sure where I would be in terms of design or what tools I would be using.
Oh yeah, and since I have recently upgraded to CS4, I have also added Dreamweaver and a bit of Flash in the repertoire of Adobe applications that I use on a regular basis.
3. Wacom Tablet
This was a piece of technology that I didn’t get right away. I certainly wanted to try one, and I knew it would be great for some of the more illustrative projects that came up from time to time, but for quite some time it just wasn’t in the budget.
Eventually, though, I did get my hands on an Intuos tablet, and now I couldn’t imagine doing what I do without one. The moment I open Photoshop or Illustator, I have to have my tablet plugged in. It gives me such precise control, and in a manner that just feels so much more natural than using a mouse.
For me, this is now pretty much an essential piece of equipment. If you’re debating whether or not it would be worth it to pick one up, let me offer you this bit of advise: do it! You can get some basic models for a very reasonable price, and I can almost guarantee that it will make your life a heck of a lot easier.
When I first started seriously trying to improve my design skills, I actually did most of my work from home. There really wasn’t a lot of available desk space on site, and I was able to work efficiently in the quiet of my own apartment office. At the time, I did all of my work on my desktop PC. Later, when I started actually going into the office (just before the birth of my daughter and after some restructuring freed up some desk space), I transferred my work to my Toshiba Satellite, complete with Windows Vista.
CS2 ran… but just barely. Everything took forever.
So, when it came time to finally upgrade to CS4 (I just skipped CS3), I knew that it was also time to power up. And so it was, that I acquired my MacBook. It was worth the investment. I do all of my design work on the Mac and it flies. CS4 runs more smoothly than it ever did on my PC, and I can push Photoshop further without having to worry about running out of memory.
Also, OS X is just so much nicer to work in than Windows. Everything just feels more intuitive, and I really get the sense that the operating system actually works to make my job easier, rather than to just look pretty and eat up all my RAM.
You may find this one odd, I’m dead serious. Several years ago, I was given the task of creating a blog for Highland Marketing (which has since kind of died… but we’re working at bringing it back, bigger and better and more manageable). I wanted to keep the blog hosted with our own provider, so a separate engine like Blogger was out of the question. At the time, our hosting package did not include any MySQL databases (which I didn’t even understand at the time anyhow), so I managed to track down a system called Blosxom, which was essentially a Perl script that could fetch data from individual text files on the server and mash it all together in a blog like format.
It was elegantly written in its own way, though certainly simplistic and perhaps somewhat inflexible. It did the job, though. Actually, as of the time of this post, the Highland Marketing website is actually being run by an extremely hacked and customized version of Blosxom. It’s not the best solution, but there is so much interconnected code that it would be a huge undertaking to port it all. I probably will eventually, though. Just not right now.
I had a friend who was looking for a website designed, part of which included getting a blog up and running. I knew that I wanted something more than what I had been using, so I did a bit of research and started learning more about WordPress. I downloaded a copy and installed it, just to give it a whirl.
I loved it. And still do.
The application has a simple and intuitive shell which makes it really simple to use, and with its extensible architecture and vast collection of plugins it’s absolutely incredible how flexible WordPress can actually become.
But the real way that the program changed my life was through the concept of server side content management, which is a vastly superior way of maintaining content. Now, I use some sort of CMS for every website that I design!
6. Open Source
The last technology that I want to talk about today isn’t so much a technology as it is a mindset for developing technologies. I’m talking about Open Source. I love it. WordPress is Open Source. So is Concrete5 – the other CMS that I use. I’ve also found a number of other Open Source applications that I totally dig.
Firefox is probably a prime example. It has been my browser of choice for years now.
I also use LimeSurvey, which is really awesome Open Source, server side program for creating and managing complex surveys. I use the application to create questionnaires that I have clients complete, in order to help me achieve the best possible design for them.
Most recently, I discovered an application suite called OpenOffice. I really didn’t want to buy Microsoft Office for my Mac, but I was getting frustrated with not being able to access Excel files, and with having to use TextEdit to do all my writing. So I did a bit of research to see if I could find a couple of different Open Source programs to fill the void. Instead, I found OpenOffice, which is essentially a Microsoft Office clone.
I now have a word processor (like Word), a spreadsheet application (like Excel), a presentation application (like PowerPoint), and a database application (like Access). It’s such a relief, and I didn’t have to spend a dime.
These days, if I need an application to do something, I usually turn to the Open Source community first, to see if I can find a solution there. It’s absolutely amazing what you can find out there!
So there you go – six technologies that have really changed my life in terms of the way I design. What about you? What programs, gadgets, tools and/or philosophies have had an impact on your life as a designer? What would you recommend to people just getting into the field?Post A Comment
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