A thought suddenly occurred to me last week when I was attending a presentation at IWMW about HTML5 and friends. One of the slides contained the logos of the five major browsers. It suddenly occurred to me that they are all round!
It is almost as if the circle or sphere has, by stealth, become the standard shape of the web. Because of the sort of person I am, I began to wonder just why this is. After a while, I figured that it was because a circle, or something vaguely spherical, reminds us of a globe, symbolising the ‘world wide’ nature of the web.
None of the logos go out of their way to look like a globe though. The most globe-like is the Firefox logo, and even then it is a made-up map that is mostly obscured by the fox. The Safari logo also features, quite subliminally, part of a world map. But this takes a back seat to the compass.
As many will remember, a globe was a big feature of the Internet Explorer logo about ten years ago. It was the big ‘e’ that rotated to reveal a globe on the other side while a page was loading. But nowadays the only throwback to that is the yellow ring, which looks a bit like an orbital path.
Goodness knows what the Google Chrome logo is actually supposed to be (a gay pride pokéball?). But the spherical nature of it is quite a strong reminder of a globe.
I have been thinking lately about good visual metaphors for the web. I am not particularly keen on the image we currently use in the University of St Andrews web team for the avatar of our Twitter account @stawebteam. I think it looks too much like we are forcing Firefox down people’s throats. The question is how to differentiate our Twitter account from others that use the University crest.
A spider’s web doesn’t work — it is cheesy, laboured and just a bit too obvious. The original world wide web logo (on the right), designed by Tim Berners-Lee’s co-conspirator Robert Cailliau, has not aged well and is not particularly versatile.
Maybe the answer is just to somehow adopt the sphere. What I wonder is if going spherical was a conscious decision on the part of the browser logos’ designers — and it is a sheer coincidence that they have all had the same idea. Or perhaps it is something that sits subconsciously in the back of a designer’s head when thinking about the world wide web.
An alternative theory is that the logos are designed not to look like a globe, but to look like the Internet Explorer logo! While having a look to see if anyone had spotted the trend for browser logos to be circular or spherical, I came across another blog post with more theories as to why.
In the comments there, momentum gathers behind the idea that the other browsers are following what Internet Explorer has done because it has become so ingrained in people’s minds that you click the circular logo to surf the web. I particularly like the first comment from Simon:
People got used to the idea that the icon that goes to the internet is the round, blue one, so other browser-makers followed suit with at least the shape.
In fact, looking at the logos again, I think it goes even further than the shape. Many of the logos feature blue prominently. Even Google Chrome’s multi-coloured logo places a blue sphere centre stage.
Perhaps this is the real reason why Opera has never quite got much of a foothold in the desktop browser market! Its logo is arguably the least spherical, and is the only one of the current major browsers that doesn’t feature any blue.
I’ve been wondering a bit about the way technology news is still ghettoised. I don’t mean news about the latest rubbish web 2.0 start-up with a ridiculous name. I mean quite important stuff. Security problems and the like.
Take what happened last week. A patch to fix a major flaw in the DNS was released. It is pretty important stuff. But the only mentions of it have been ghettoised in the darkest recesses of the technology sections, cordoned off in yellow and black tape with “warning: geeks only” written on it.
I don’t watch the television much these days, so I might be wrong. But I saw no mention of it on the news. I heard no mention of it on the radio. You certainly don’t hear people talking about it on the streets or in pubs.
You might think, “So what? Security update for X, Y and Z are released every day. You can’t have the news reporting it every day.” But something extra happened with that security update that was released last week: it crippled many users’ computers. Including my parents’ computer.
It is just as well I was still able to use my computer to try and find out what the problem was and how to workaround it. It turned out that ZoneAlarm threw a hissy-fit after Windows XP had updated and prevented users from accessing the internet.
In fairness, the BBC reported this on their website — but that’s not very useful if you’ve got no internet. Perhaps there are still people scratching their head about why they’ve not been able to access the internet for the past week.
The problem is twofold. One, the mainstream media seems quite averse to any technology story unless it’s to do with [say this like a caveman] “GOOGLE” or “APPLE”. Or “GOOGLE”. Simply, if you want to find out anything meaningful about technology you have to really know where to look for it.
And this brings me on to the second part of the problem. The people who don’t know where to look for information are also the most vulnerable users. There are people who, for whatever reason, can’t be motivated to take proactive measures to prevent themselves from the various security issues that inevitably arise when you use the internet.
I have a friend who bought a new computer a few weeks ago. The other day he complained to me that his new computer has already got spyware on it. The thing is that it’s not difficult to protect yourself really.
I’m not really a computer expert in the slightest, but I know the basics of how to protect myself — essentially keep all your software updated with the latest patches and don’t click any dodgy links. I don’t think it’s really a difficult concept. And — touch wood — these basics have worked for me. Since I got my own computer early last year I’ve never had anything worse than a tracking cookie on my computer (as far as I know — I just know that this is an invitation for my computer to explode under the weight of pop-ups tomorrow…).
But even simple measures like these that anyone can take are difficult to get through to some people. So many people still treat computers with awe. It is sometimes easy to forget how foreign computers are to many people.
I remember a couple of years ago when there was a really bad signalling failure on the train line into Edinburgh. Basically every train was cancelled. An old lady pointed to the automated departure monitor and asked why it said a list of trains towards the bottom of the screen were still listed as being on time.
This is what she said in protest (as though it would make her more likely to get on a train to Edinburgh): “I thought computers were wonderful things that never ever went wrong.” But even my basic knowledge of how computers work told me exactly why the trains were still listed as being ‘on time’ — because they hadn’t even departed from their start station, so hadn’t passed any sensors and weren’t technically late at all. The computer was none the wiser for obvious reasons.
This can be put down to the old issue that people in their thirties and younger have been using computers for almost all of their lives and understand what a computer is good for and what it isn’t. Youngsters who have lived with computers all their lives understand how a computer works, but for many people older than that computers just work by magic.
The thing is, that divide between young and old is not so clear cut as I used to think. I was listening to iPM yesterday and there was an interview with Clive Sinclair. He pointed out that back in the 1980s computer users really understood computers because they had to in order to get them to work. Today’s youngsters growing up with computers generally don’t understand computers at all.
So we come back to my friend who is the same age as me and has a problem with spyware. I have had a few conversations with him where I have tried to persuade him to use Firefox. For him, the internet is the internet and he doesn’t understand how one browser can be better than another. Even though I have told him about all the superior features and better security that a browser like Firefox or Opera can provide, he persists on using Internet Exploder version bum point poo.
Many people, through ignorance, don’t take the simple measures to keep themselves safe on the internet. I’ve had a look at the stats for this website to see what bad browsers visitors to this site are using.
In the past month, an amazing 20% of visitors used Internet Explorer 6. This is a web browser that was originally released seven years ago and last updated four years ago. It is notorious for its security problems. The more up-to-date Internet Explorer 7 was released almost two years ago.
You would expect Firefox users to be smarter, right? Not always. In the past month, 243 Firefox users that visited this website were using a version of the browser that is considered unsafe (which I defined as 220.127.116.11 and below). This included 19 people using 18.104.22.168, 11 using 1.0.7 and 8 using 22.214.171.124. Most amazingly, 4 visitors were using Firefox 0.9.1, a browser that has been out of date for four years. I dread to think what kind of security problems these users have been getting themselves in.
It got me wondering. If this many people are using dodgy browsers, how many people are still trying in vain to unsubscribe from spam emails? How many don’t know that even viewing an image in an email alerts a spammer that your email address is active? You could go on.
I don’t mean all this in a preachy kind of way. I completely understand why it is difficult for people to keep up to date with all the security issues that arise. I just find it really frustrating that simple awareness issues are not, well, made aware to people.
Things don’t get much more ubiquitous than the internet. It is impossible to imagine that someone growing up today will not be a regular internet user in some form or another. And there are real dangers on the internet that aren’t to do with [say this like a caveman] “PEDOPHILS” and “CYBER BULLIES”. But the media reports on made-up dangers like “KNIVES” and “YOOFS” and “KNIVES” as though we are on the verge of bladeageddon.
Yesterday I was listening to Digital Planet. They had a chap called Stefan Frei on reporting that around 60% of all internet users are using an out-of-date browser. He had a really smart way of thinking about software security. You should think of software as being perishable, just in the same way as foodstuffs. You wouldn’t eat a mouldy slice of bread, so why would you use a browser with a huge security hole in it?
It’s a really smart analogy that should be spread far and wide. It’s just frustrating that the place I heard it was on Digital Planet, which is probably listened to mainly by people who already know that they should be updating their browsers.
Yesterday WordPress 2.6 came out which is pretty unbelievable because it feels like WP 2.5 just came out last month. Anyway, a new version of WordPress comes with the necessity to upgrade and the hair-pulling that comes with it.
My upgrades went fairly smoothly, but I did notice an issue with .swf files not being installed. I saw that a couple of other people had the same problem.
Flashblock, incidentally, is a must-have Firefox extension for me as it allows you to have complete control over Flash files. No more stupid adverts or autoplay or any of that other nonsense that comes with Flash. Meanwhile, WordPress Automatic Upgrade is slightly flaky, but at the end of the day it makes upgrading WordPress much less painful and much faster than it would be otherwise.
Anyway, I have three blogs. I had the problem with the .swf files on the first two blogs. So that gave me a perfect opportunity to see if my theory about Flashblock was right on my third blog. So I disabled Flashblock and ran WPAU. The upgrade went well, with all the files uploading.
If you already ran WPAU while using Flashblock, your WordPress upgrade may be incomplete. Check to see if the following files are missing and upload them manually.
I’m in the process of writing the next post in my series about music and the internet, but it’s proving to be a bit of an epic. It is probably better to spread the posts out anyway. I doubt many people want to read my ranting and raving about the music industry between Christmas and new year.
In the meantime, here is a quick post to point out that I have tweaked the design a bit. I took account of the feedback you all gave me when I originally unveiled this design — all much appreciated.
MatGB wanted a darker background. I have made the background slightly darker, but you probably won’t notice it isn’t white. It is a very light grey. I tried darker greys, but it never looked right to me.
Clive thought the font size was too big. It is big, but for some reason Cambria is quite a small font (to my eyes at least). I did try to reduce it, but it just doesn’t work for me. Part of the reason for this is the fact that the column is so wide now that reducing the font size means having too many words on one line. So I’ve decided to keep the font sizes as they are. If you want a smaller font size, adjust the browser settings.
I have made the colours slightly more muted, as Duncan suggested. The original design had rather simple greens, yellows and reds colours. I have toned down the greens so that they are darker, and the yellow for categories has become a mellow orange.
I have fixed the tags page, so it is back with even more taggy goodness than before. I should point out that tags is a bit of a work-in-progress now. Over the years the tags have become quite messy, so I am having to tidy them up. It is quite time consuming though. I did ‘a’ a couple of months ago and yesterday I did ‘b’. So it’ll be a while until it’s perfect. But it works fine as it is really.
I have also opted to put the dates back in everywhere. I did feel lost without them.
There are still some weird spacing issues in both Internet Exploder and Opera. I guess this is to be expected since I designed it using Firefox. I’ve tried to sort out as many of the niggles as I could, but some of them have really stumped me. They are not too serious though, so I’m just going to leave them as they are.
“Only” 55% of this blog’s visitors use Internet Explorer any more anyway. Probably in 2008 IE users will finally be in a minority (for this blog at least). Seriously people, just use Firefox. It would make our lives so much easier.
I just have a couple more tweaks here and there to do (mostly getting a ‘credits’ section finished). So I am tentatively calling the design finished. Comments are still welcome though.
Yes, I’ve decided to give the blog a new look again. I couldn’t wait to get this up, but it’s not quite finished. I still need to do a few tweaks here and there. (Surprise surprise, it looks a bit guff in Internet Exploder.) But it’s quite late now and I can’t bring myself to switch it back to the old theme, so I’m throwing caution to the wind and leaving it up.
I’ll update this post later some time in the afternoon explaining the thinking behind it all. In the meantime, if you spot any problems or if you have any suggestions, please leave a comment.
Update: Okay, so now I have the time to post a bit about what I’ve done here.
Perhaps the first thing I should point out is the fact that, regrettably, some URLs have changed. Permalinks to posts and the like should still work perfectly. But you’ll notice that I’ve moved the pages in the navigation panel around a bit. I’ve also reorganised the categories (in fact, I haven’t quite finished that yet).
Speaking of categories, I have finally created a ‘media’ category. It never quite made sense for media posts to be listed under ‘entertainment’, particularly if I was writing about some kind of media coverage of a serious story. So I’ve gone ahead and separated them, and now television, radio and newspapers are listed under media. As such, some category URLs have also changed, so sorry about that if you had them bookmarked or something.
So why the change? Well, I am still very fond of the old design. It will probably make a reappearance somewhere — possibly on another blog. But perhaps I will release it as a WordPress theme for others to use — if I can find the time to make the appropriate tweaks to it.
Despite my pride though, I was always aware that a lot of people were not very keen on the previous design. And it has been there for almost a year. (Maybe this change will become an annual occurrence, a doctorvee Christmas tradition.)
Common complaints were about the dark background (apparently an acquired taste) and the bright links. So I’ve decided to swing back to a white background and rather more muted colours, if you can call green muted.
This is also the equivalent of growing a moustache to try and signify that you are growing up (not that many people grow moustaches these days, but you know what I mean). The previous design was deliberately jazzy and distinctive. But since then I have become a can’t-get-away-from-it adult. And in the next few months I will hopefully be finished with university.
So that means ditching the childish neon colours and adopting a serif font. I have spoken before about my devotion to Verdana, but I am afraid I have become rather tired of it. It is suffering from Times New Roman syndrome.
You know. It’s become a ubiquitous, default font. As such, it is used in so many pieces of ugly design. We have all stumbled upon badly thrown-together websites written in Verdana, just as we see too many passive aggressive notes written in Times New Roman.
But while I was designing I visited Modern Life which uses Cambria. It is basically the Vista version of Times New Roman, but lovely. I fell in love and decided to use the font on my blog. But as far as I know Cambria is only available on Vista, so for everyone else it is still Georgia.
A funny thing about Cambria is that it appears to be extraordinarily small, so the font size is rather large. But there’s nothing wrong with that I suppose.
Headings and some other bits and pieces are in Helvetica where possible, although Windows users (including me!) will have to make do with Arial. I know it’s a bit clichéd, and rather too ubiquitous, but you never grow tired of it. I do love Helvetica so I was keen to use it when I decided to give the blog a cleaner design.
I suppose now is a good time to talk about the general inspiration for the redesign. I was tempted to go back to a clinical, Helvetica-led design when I first saw screenshots for the new beta version of Delicious. Delicious is a very apt word. Mind you, the end result on this blog has ended up looking very little like the Delicious screenshots.
A more direct inspiration has been the beautifully-designed Lokesh Dhakar website. In fact, parts of this blog’s design have turned out to be embarrassingly similar. I first came across his blog when I read this guide to different kinds of coffee and it instantly struck me as an excellent design.
Layout-wise, I very much went for the ‘less is more’ approach. This has meant compromises in places, but I’ll go on to that. The main change is that I’ve moved away from a three column layout to two columns. I had read somewhere that multiple columns just confuse people, which makes sense. So it’s back to one sidebar.
I was keen to get everything lined up nicely with each other. This does make it look quite neat, but one problem is that the main column is quite close to the sidebar. The solution was to have a neat line running along the left of the sidebar, although I’m still not sure if it is enough. I toyed with using full justification, but decided in the end that the cons outweighed the pros.
Despite the intimate position of the main column and the sidebar, the page is wider than before. Making good use of the space available and all that. As such, the design only really works if your screen is at least 1024 pixels wide. But the same was true of the previous design. And people with smaller screens make up around 3% of this blog’s visitors. Sorry to those 3%, but the rest of us just get masses of white space.
On to the content. One thing you’ll notice is that categories are now taking pride of place above every single post. They used to be hidden away, only appearing in the sidebar of single post pages.
The reason I’ve made them more prominent is because over the years I have become more and more guilty about the fact that this blog is a bit of a ragbag of different topics. And the Formula 1 posts in particular are beginning to overshadow everything else. So having the category as the first thing of every post is just a heads-up for everyone, so that you know what the post is about and you can easily skip the posts you aren’t interested in.
Another new addition is subtitles. I saw this on a few other blogs and really liked the idea, so I’m going to give it a go. Inspired by this article, I did it using custom fields, a feature of WordPress that I have never really explored before.
Gone from the top of the post, however, are the date and the comments link. The date still appears there on single posts, but I am thinking of including them everywhere again. I already feel a bit lost without them (although I didn’t use dates much on any of the designs I used before the previous one).
I am also open to putting the comments link back up there, although the link still appears at the bottom of the post as expected. Any comments on this would be appreciated.
I have also taken the plunge and decided to add a ShareThis button, despite what I wrote about it a few months ago. I’m still experimenting with the position of this, so any ideas would be welcome.
Over to the sidebar. I’ve reduced the amount of stuff that’s there to a bare minimum. The latest comment is still there as I like to highlight the great discussions that go on in the comments, which is really what blogging is all about.
Twitter is still there, although I’ve reduced it to just the latest update rather than the last three. Delicious too has been reduced to just the five most recent links. I normally post to Delicious more often than five times a day, so this might be a bit odd. But there is method to my madness.
I made a decision a short while ago that this blog should concentrate mainly on original content. That’s just the way the blog has evolved, and I don’t really like to fob people off with YouTube clips all the time.
But it’s good to highlight interesting websites and videos. After all, that was the original meaning of the word ‘weblog’, celebrating its tenth anniversary this week. So I will create another home for them. Probably a tumblelog, but I will get round to that later.
The other prominent feature on the main page (and, indeed, every page, the big whore that I am) is adverts. An early version of this design had the adverts appearing in a garish green colour scheme, but I screwed my head on enough to revert to a more sane grey version. I am ridiculously proud of having the idea of paying homage to Associated-Rediffusion, which wouldn’t really have worked with the green scheme.
The part of the design I am most worried about is the comments. For some reason, I always find the comments section the most difficult to design, and this time was no different.
I decided to move the comment author information to the left of the comment rather than above. Part of this was to get the full size of the Gravatar displayed, which would take up too much room if you have it above. It is also a layout familiar to message board users, so no real issue there.
There is a problem, however, if somebody has quite a long word in their name. In a recent example, Bellgrovebelle is cut off, although there are worse examples. Thankfully, these are quite rare and hopefully not too distracting.
As has already been noted by Ollie in the comments to this post, there is an inconsistency between the sizes of the Gravatars and the Identicons. I’ve not worked too hard on this yet, although my attempts so far have only produced pixellated-looking Identicons. I am working on it though.
Other features I’m thinking about adding to the comments section are favicons and OpenID.
In the pages (about, archives, etc.) I have also removed a lot of stuff that I didn’t really consider important any more. I’m thinking of completely uninstalling the post popularity plugin as this blog now has a post ratings system which I prefer. As for the other stuff, see if you can work out what’s gone. I doubt anyone will be too upset.
One last thing. I am using some icons from the Silk set by Fam Fam Fam. I’ve still not quite finished this aspect of the design, as I’m not sure which bits should have icons and which shouldn’t.
I think that just about covers it. Sorry this post went on for so long. I would be grateful to hear any comments or ideas. And of course, if something seems broken then please let me know about it!