Archive for 2010

On Speaking

Back in 2004, Christopher Schmitt asked me to share a CSS panel at SXSW alongside Doug Bowman and Dave Shea. I was terrified. I’d never spoken in front of a large group of people before, and frankly the very idea of such a thing had always made me tremble with paralyzing fear. But when you’re asked to speak with Bowman and Shea, you pack your bags and you go do it.

And I survived.

We did it again the following year, and I survived again. I remember thinking, “well this isn’t so bad, no lives are at stake here”. So I started saying yes to other events, eventually constructing hour-long talks and workshops that could be repeated in various cities around the globe. I survived those too, and hopefully I was able to entertain and share some thinking around designing websites with web standards.

View from the stage

I’m taking a hiatus from speaking in 2011 to recharge and focus on other things, but thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned from speaking over the last several years, from someone who isn’t a naturally-born speaker or expert in speaking, hates flying, and generally get anxious about combining those two activities.

Some of the follow points might be obvious for some, but they’re all important bits I try and keep in mind before every talk. I’ve learned most of them from other speakers, articles and advice from colleagues and event organizers.

  • Say yes. If you’re asked to speak, by all means say yes. The people that get up to speak in front of an audience are no different than the people sitting in the audience. The only difference is that they’ve said yes. In some cases they’ve taken a risk, or agreed to something out of their comfort zone, but I can attest than anyone can speak if they just get up there and give it an effort.
  • Get paid. I’m of the mind that if the conference or event is turning a profit, so should the speaker. Don’t be afraid to ask for a speaking fee if the event is profitable. You’ll deserve it. If it’s your first time speaking and you’ve traveled across continents or across town, you should be paid. Even if it’s a small amount—it’s a good principle to stick to.
  • Practice. Contrary to the preceding point, there are plenty of non-profit events to practice at. Local meetups, Refresh groups, etc. This is where you can practice without the pressure of making paying customers happy.
  • You’ll never please everyone. No matter what the event is, the audience will always be a diverse mixture of folks from many disciplines. You’ll forever have to attempt to strike a balance between being too technical or not technical enough. That’s OK. Some will take away, others won’t. If the feedback is overwhelmingly negative because the content of your talk didn’t jive with the skill level of the audience, blame the conference organizer. No really. It’s their job to assemble a program that hopefully has the talks working in concert with each other. Beware of invitations that say, “speak about whatever you’d like. We don’t care”. Conference organizers should be proactive in editorializing the talks to create a cohesive flow. Great conferences will do that.
  • Take your badge off. The audience knows who you are, and it’ll swing and bang the microphone and make noise. Plus, no one can pull off wearing a conference badge and look cool at the same time. Except maybe Jeff Veen.
  • Drink water. And don’t worry about pausing to take a sip. Pauses are fine and no one notices them. It took me a long time to realize that. If you have a good (or bad) joke and the audience laughs, this is a prime opportunity to take a drink without disrupting the flow.
  • Tell stories. Stories are interesting. Stories that relate to what you’re trying to convey will not only make your talk more interesting, but also help the audience absorb your topic. Example: instead of starting off, “I’m going to talk about CSS3 selectors”, you might begin, “The other day I was working on a client project where CSS3 selectors came in handy. Here’s how.”. The audience wants to hear how you relate to the topic.
  • Use a remote. I like to be mobile on stage, and the remote is key is making sure you can get out from behind the podium. I’ve been using the Kensington Wireless Presenter for years after Eric Meyer had recommended it. A USB remote (like the Kensington) will have a far better range than the standard Apple Remote.
  • Share experiences instead of dictating. The talks I enjoy the most are usually always based on the speaker sharing their experiences and their point of view on a particular topic. The talks I dislike the most are those that preach one specific way of executing something. Talk down to the audience and it’ll make it harder to win them over.
  • Embed interactions. If you’re demonstrating interaction with a website, capture that as a movie file and embed it in the presentation. Keynote is particularly good at this (just drag a .mov file to a slide and presto). Conference wifi can be unpredictable, and it’s best not to rely on a live connection to showcase web pages. Embedding screencasts makes for a smoother presentation as well, keeping the flow in a single application. No need to switch in and out of your slides to show something else. I use iShowU to capture stuff on screen with good results and I’ve heard positive things about ScreenFlow as well.
  • Spend little time on introducing yourself. Most of the time, the audience has already had a chance to check out who you are, so lengthy intros about yourself are often unnecessary. A few links and ways people can contact you and learn more at the close of the talk can be more efficient. Start right in with the meat of the presentation. Starting with a story can help (see earlier point re: stories).
  • Attend the event. I try and attend as many of the talks as possible. People pay good money for an event, and you, as a presenter, have the opportunity to listen and learn for free. It’s also important for camaraderie amongst fellow speakers and the event organizers. But most important of all, there’s an immense amount you can learn about speaking by watching how everyone else does it. See what works for others, their style, the way they deliver, how the audience responds. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, watch the other speakers as a learning tool to make your own speaking better. For free.

This list is far from exhaustive, and again it’s not coming from an expert. Just some things that helped me along the way, and will hopefully be useful to a few of you out there.


One of the things I’ve tried to maintain with the branding around here is a building on top of what currently exists. Rather than completely toss out the visuals of designs and previous logos, I like to keep hints to the past. Part of that helps familiarity, but it also maintains a path of evolution rather than revolution.


Last week I rolled out an updated SimpleBits mark and simplified layout. I started tinkering a few months ago over on Dribbble and after some great feedback, settled on hex shape borrowed from the inner cube of the old mark, which was carried over from the original pixel art logo way back when. The new mark should work far better at smaller sizes and applications (which was the reason for the tweaking) and seemed fitting to bring back the original orange from the first (extremely dated) design from years ago (11px Verdana still looks good, no?).

Along with the new logo I made some adjustments to the template here as well. Most of those changes centered on a new typeface: FF Milo Web Pro which is versitle in various sizes, looks great in all caps and can be served up via Typekit (you need to purchase the font from FontFont first, which then unlocks it for use with Typekit).

Here’s to personal sites being a perpetual sandbox.

CSS3 For Web Designers

For the fourth time in my life, I’ve written a book. It’s titled, CSS3 For Web Designers and it’s available today in paperback and ebook formats from A Book Apart. I couldn’t be more excited, seeing this little green thing launch after months of planning, writing, editing, fretting. I certainly didn’t do it alone.

book cover Photo by Jason Santa Maria

I wouldn’t be writing books if it weren’t for Jeffrey Zeldman, so it’s especially fantastic to have CSS3 For Web Designers be the No. 2 offering from A Book Apart—a publishing house created by Jeffrey, Mandy Brown and Jason Santa Maria. Their focus on “brief books for people who make websites” was a perfect fit for the book I wanted to write: a practical guide to portions of CSS3 that work today, usable by anyone right now. I’ve been speaking about how CSS3 can be safely and easily utilized on the experience layer of well-crafted websites over the last year, and it’s wonderful to have that research packaged up in paper and pixel form.

Following up Jeremy Keith’s HTML5 For Web Designers masterpiece was an impossible task. His book was the right time, the right subject and the right author. It’s an instant classic. Daunting as it was, I set out on a similar task: show what can be done right now, no filler, and let people get back to work. The brief book format is rather brilliant for these types of subjects, and ABA already has several more titles in the works from the likes of Kissane and Marcotte. It’s an honor to be a part of this.

If anything sounds good in the book it’s because of Mandy Brown, the most detailed editor I’ve worked with. Mandy has a frightening grasp on the subject matter while at the same time mastering the editorial tone. That combination makes her some sort of supereditor (a word I’ve just invented). If anything looks good in the book it’s because of Jason Santa Maria, whose design system is one of the most clear and pleasant book layouts I’ve worked within (that’s Jason’s photo above as well). And if anything is accurate it’s because of Ethan Marcotte who handled tech editing like the gentleman-genius he is. As I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t be writing books if it weren’t for Mr. Zeldman, so to have him publish this little book is a special thing.

So go grab a copy! I recommend the paperback + ebook bundle. You’ll get the beautiful book as well as inline video within the epub version. A great way to demonstrate those transitions, transforms and animations.

And check out Jeffrey’s blog post, Jason’s blog post, Mandy’s blog post, as well as a sample of chapter 2, Understanding CSS Transitions over at A List Apart which was also published today.

I’m back in the saddle this week after returning from Build, a conference in Northern Ireland, expertly assembled by Andy McMillan. It was a great event, and a nice way to cap off a busy year of speaking. Build was my last event till 2012. I decided I need some time off to recharge, focus on some other things, not be away from the family, and take a good long while before thinking about diving into Keynote again to construct a fresh talk. Looking forward to attending an event or two in 2011.

Handcrafted CSS Nashville: The Rebound Contest

With early bird pricing for Handcrafted CSS Nashville (a full-day workshop presented by myself and Mr. Ethan Marcotte) winding down, we thought we’d run a little contest to giveaway two free tickets to the event on June 21st and other prizes.

Ethan has all the details on how to enter: a Dribbble playoff of the beloved Baskerville italic ampersand. You don’t need to be a Dribbble member to enter! In fact, we’ll be giving away two Dribbble invitations as part of the contest.

Hit us with your best shot, and hope to see you in Nashville next month!

Introducing Dribbble

Let the games begin! Rich Thornett and I have been building Dribbble for what seems like years (oh wait, it has been that long). About a week ago, we quietly rolled back the curtain so the public could finally see what’s been happening in private beta. I’m pretty damned excited about this.

Firstly, what is Dribbble? From the FAQ:

Dribbble is show and tell for designers, developers and other creatives. Members share sneak peeks of their work as “shots” — small screenshots of the designs and applications they are working on. It’s also a place to talk design, give and receive feedback and iterate toward better work.

By posing the question, “What are you working on?“, Dribbble creates a 400 × 300 pixel window into the creative process that didn’t exist previously (many of you may remember Cameron Moll’s Screengrab Confab back in 2004, an early inspiration). A place to peek over the shoulder of those creating beautiful things, leaking works-in-progress or teasing with glimpses of unreleased projects. A place to discover new designers, illustrators, developers and other creatively-minded folks to give and receive feedback. And a place to iterate and play off the shots of others. What Rich and I have been actually creating is a community.

We’ve bootstrapped Dribbble 100%, working on it in our free time. I’ve been continuing the writing, speaking, client work, etc. that happens here at SimpleBits, while Rich is a full-time Ruby on Rails Developer at Cambridge-based PatientsLikeMe. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to create between the two of us, while juggling other responsibilities. Working on this with Rich has been one of the most exciting, challenging and enjoyable projects I’ve worked on to date, and I’m feeling very fortunate to have been able to collaborate with him right here in Salem (truly the next big web hub, yeah?)

I also couldn’t be happier with the path we’ve taken with developing Dribbble: a slow one. Building the community one member at time. Worrying about details. Iterating constantly. Listening to feedback. We’ve never been in a rush.

Quality has been one of our main priorities since opening up the beta some 9 months ago. It’s the reason Dribbble is still invitation only. Not because it’s an elite hangout, but that having the community draft new talent keeps the cat photos out (almost) and helps us scale the app as needed.

Much much more to write and talk about going forward. But for now, it’s great to have the court opened up to the public, and we’re looking forward to making the experience even better and growing the community. For now, get in there and check out some of the amazing things that people are working on. It’s truly inspiring.

Handcrafted CSS Nashville

I’m pleased to announce Ethan and I are bringing the Handcrafted CSS workshop to Nashville! We’ll reprise of the one-day course we organized last September here in Salem, Massachusetts and again last November in London with Carsonified.

As always, each attendee will get a copy of the book (Handcrafted CSS: Video Edition including the DVD) and we’ll spend the day walking through much of its content and more. This event was a great success in New England and Old England, and we’re thrilled to bring it south, to Tennessee.

So join us on June 21st at the historic Hermitage Hotel right smack in downtown Nashville (steps away from the famed Ryman Auditorium and other sights). For more info on the event and to book a place (there’s a max of 100 spots), visit the Handcrafted CSS Workshop site.

New at the Shop

A few weeks ago, we moved the studio (affectionately dubbed the BitCave) across the street to newer, slightly larger digs. It’s more comfortable, the windows open, we have our own temperature controls–you know, real lavish stuff.

Yesterday, we relaunched the SimpleBits Shop, bringing the fulfillment back in house. Our slightly larger space is able to accomodate the stock, and now each order will be lovingly hand-packed by resident Commerce Director, Meagan Fisher. I’m excited to grow this arm of the business, since it fulfills a creative outlet for non-digital goods.

New at the shop is the Bit Monsters limited edition letterpress print. Just 200 copies, signed and numbered. It was printed here in Massachusetts (New Bedford, to be exact) at EM Letterpress, who I can’t recommend enough. I had the pleasure of visiting the press while the print ran, and watched and learned about the process from owner Elias Roustom. Here’s a video taken that day of the print process on the Heidelberg Windmill.

Also available, in limited quantity, is the official Dribbble tee. We’ll be ordering more sizes, and more importantly announcing news about the site and its launch very soon.