Imitation, Repetition, Innovation

So I’ve been learning the banjo. At the beginning of 2011, I set out to learn something new—something that had nothing to do with pixels, browser bugs, typing, or angle brackets. I’m not calling it a resolution, as I can’t think of another resolution I’ve ever followed through on completely. But I’ve fallen through on the banjo. Specifically, clawhammer banjo, which is an old time style of playing without finger picks.

I’ve been playing music most of my life, starting with drums at age 8, then later guitar, but the banjo has always fascinated me. It’s a peculiar, misunderstood instrument. And it’s difficult to play. Or so I initially thought.

The banjo’s been around for hundreds of years and was a very popular instrument prior to World War II. A guy named Earl Scruggs came along and revolutionized the way it was played: three finger style with syncopated rolls and virtuostic finger acrobatics. It’s the style you’ll hear in most bluegrass band setups. It’s wonderful. But it’s damn hard to learn how to play—especially if you have previous experience with the guitar or other stringed instruments. That high barrier to entry arguably led to the dwindling of banjo players over the last half-century.

Clawhammer (or frailing) on the other hand, is a method I’ve found far easier to pick up. It’s the way most folks played before the Scruggs style became popular: right hand in a fixed, claw-like position with a single finger nail hammering down on the strings, while the thumb plucks the drone string. Although I’ve found it easier, more natural and simpler, there’s still an amazing variety in the sounds you can get out of the banjo, not to mention it sounds great on its own (where three-finger style sounds best accompanied by a band).


Fortunately, there’s a real clawhammer banjo master right here in Salem, Tom Collins, and I’ve been taking lessons from him once a month or so. It’s been invaluble to sit down in person in order to figure out what you’re doing right, and what you’re doing wrong.

Over the course of these lessons, it struck me that learning this wacky instrument comes down to three main stages:

  • Imitation
  • Repetition
  • Innovation

I’ve been learning by being taught to play various tunes. Most of the songs are old time classics that have been passed down from generations of banjo players. When we begin learning something new, we imitate. We learn to mimic people who know what they’re doing. This is OK. We’re not stealing from them (yet) but rather learning by immersion and observation.

Another crucial part of learning the banjo (or any instrument for that matter) is repetition. You learn patterns and exercises that are mastered by repeating them over and over and over again. “Muscle memory” kicks in eventually and these patterns become second nature, developing into a vocabulary of sorts. When learning new tunes, having that vocabulary to tap into becomes essential and speeds up the retention of new songs.

Lastly, we innovate. By taking the things learned by first mimicking the songs and styles of other players, then piecing patterns together that have been mastered through repetition (Mr. Miyagi knew what he was doing), we’re then ready to add our own details and subtlty. It’s then that we’ve created something unique of our own. Many of the old time standard tunes have countless variations. A single title might sound completely different depending on who you originally learned it from, the geographic region you’re in, etc. Even though the tune is foundationally the same, the creative “top coat” makes it stand on its own, giving it character based on where and who it came from.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how you can apply this creative progression to learning just about anything. Including … wait for it … web design. I’m hoping to write a bit more about those connections in the future. Getting this post out was the first step to help me think through it all a bit more. For now, I have tunes to learn and strings to hammer.

Dribbble Pro

Yesterday was the biggest launch I’ve yet to be a part of. Not big as in size, but big as in importance, being a major milestone, etc. We launched Dribbble Pro after months of hard work: a suite of extra features for just $19 bucks a year. I couldn’t be prouder of our little team. Rich and our fearless intern, Bruce, have worked their butts off to get this working.

The response over the last 20 hours has been overwhelmingly positive. Dribbble members seem excited by the new features, but even more so happy to help support the community. The paid Pro accounts will hopefully help us to continue to bootstrap the business, grow the community gracefully, and spend more time doing so.

Those that have already purchased Pro accounts, I can’t thank you all enough.

New Work: Web Standards Sherpa

Yesterday, Web Standards Sherpa launched. A WaSP outreach project initiated by Aaron Gustafson and Easy! Designs and sponsored by Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, W3C and several other companies.


I had the pleasure of handling the initial design and art direction for the site and working with the fantastic team that put this project together. It’s exciting to see it alive and kicking.

Web Standards Sherpa will…

“…provide web professionals the opportunity to receive feedback, glean advice and learn best practices from experts in the field to help them improve the quality of their own work.”

Check out the first pool of articles from sherpas Jared Spool, Aaron Gustafson and Erin Kissane or read more from the Web Standards Project.

CSS3 button article at Typekit

I wrote an article about creating an animated, image-free button with CSS3 and Typekit type and it’s been published today over at the Typekit Blog. Thanks to Mandy Brown for coordinating and editing it.

In a way, the article is an extension to a lot of the stuff I talk about in CSS3 For Web Designers: using the experience layer as a place to fully embrace the pieces of CSS3 that have decent support today amongst modern browsers. Buttons are a perfect place to experiment that way—and embedded type makes them all the better, while remaining flexible.

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.

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