Everything I Really Need to Know About Life I Learned in the Past Two Weeks

Thursday, May 30, 2002

While completely untrue, it makes a great title. The quirky off-Broadway play about four angsty Manhattan twenty-somethings almost writes itself…

Anyway. The past couple weeks have been exciting. When compared to the two months preceding them, at least. I turned in my thesis, attended one friend’s wedding and another’s bachelor party, attended another Digital Showcase, and worked for seven days back at the Region XIII Educatoin Services Center as a temp.

Nice job. Nice place to temp. The building is perched on the side of a hill in east Austin, overlooking a wide stretch of undeveloped land between Springdale and Manor road. I worked with the group that accepted applications for an accelerated teacher certification program, located in a glassy office right up against the back wall of the building, with a huge view out of the landscape. Best view of any office I’ve ever worked in. By a long shot. Down near the bottom of the hill lived a small lake with a rickety wooden pier on one end.

Never saw anyone spend much time outside, though. For all the exciting break-time possibilities, most of my workmates seemed content hovering around each other in their offices having their little conversations to going outside (to have the same conversations). Maybe after a few years the excitement about the outdoor area wears off.

Not that I, say, took a walk down to the lake during every five minute break. But I took the chance to walk around outside and look at stuff, loosen my eyeballs by focussing on objects more than five feet away from my face.

I did, though, one numerous occasions take trips down to the aviary alongside the building. Apparently the Service Center supplies central Texas schools with birds for whatever reasons. I remember my second grade teacher, Mrs. Davis, called “the chicken lady” behind her back because she forced her students to learn to take care of the pan of chickens she kept right outside the classroom. I also remember there being an aviary at my elementary school (Casis, on Exposition Boulevard here in Austin) — but I’d assumed that Mrs. Crowe, our principal, was responsible for that. She owned a ranch out west of town (“Crowe’s Nest Farm,” or something like that) and turned our school into a complex zoo with cages of snakes and chinchillas lining the hallways.

Anyway — that’s my experience with binds in schools. And I figured my elementary school experience was unique. (Though at the time, as a seven year old, I thought it normal — setting me up for an entire lifetime of mistaking the abnormal and absurd as normal and surd. (The surd surd surd. The surd’s not a word.)) Apparently, though, central Texas school need a constant fresh supply of pigeons, parakeets, and chickadees — and the Region XIII ESC is from where they come.

I benefitted from that relationship by having a half-dozen large caged of birds to look at while sipping coffee and taking a break. I could get right up and stare at the pigeons. Or the big, ugly goose-like creature that lived in their pen. And remember the Pixar animation that preceded “Monsters Inc.” — the one with the bunch of little birds sitting along a telephone wire chattering, upset when a big goofy bird comes and disrupts them? Chickadees. The little boogers just sat in a line along a metal cable that had been strung across their cage, chattering up a goddamn storm. Insane. But fun.

So working at Region XII had been relatively painless and had certain benefits. Had lots of time to poke around at the web while sitting around answering phones, for one thing. Didn’t pay so swell, but hey — it’s temp work. I called the agency Friday and got work Monday.

The more interesting work prospect has been developing through the Liberal Arts Career Services. The funny thing, though, is that I came looking for advice about making my resume look better, and I ended up being asked to talk to the director of the program, Glen Payne, about sprucing up the LACS website. In my life, web development jobs *always* come about this way — sort of randomly based on something else that I’m doing. But cool. It’s exciting. I talked with Glen for a while on Tuesday about the site, offered my suggestions and insights, and impressed him suitably enough, I guess, for him to want to talk with me some more tomorrow (Friday) morning. Great!

I don’t think any real competitors will be reading this page (unless Cote’ or Brenna have become competitors), so I feel secure revealing my little web developer secret:

Organizations running serious sites, such as the University of Texas, don’t really give a shit about cutting-edge design. They want their sites to look good and up-to-date and compatible with all the new cool technologies and what have you, but only insofar as it makes the content of thieir site easier to get to and use. And this is where designers who come from the web from print and media design have difficulties. (Yes — that’s wild conjecture. But it seems right based on my limited experience.) People don’t come to print ads or television spots looking for information. Organizations send out print ads or television spots hoping to entice viewers into looking for more information about the product or service or whatever. They’re supposed to be enticing.

And the web doesn’t exactly work like that. It’s very difficult to “push” (remember that word?) content onto users on the web. Spam and pop-up advertising — the two most ubiquitous forms of “push” advertising these days, I think — are nearly universally reviled. I hate ‘em both.

One the web, users (generally) come ot website on their own accord, looking for something. It might be entertainment, in which case designers can cut loose, go fucking crazy with the design wackiness. That’s fine. But usually it’s information of some sort or to perform an action of some sort, and web design, unlike advertising, exists in order to smooth that process, in order to make the process of getting that information or doing that action as simple and transparent as possible.

An amount of egolessness must exist in the designer. A good web designer’s job is to remain transparent. A good web developer make the user thing so little about the design or process that they don’t even pay attention to it. They do what they need to do and carry on with life.

So, I’m comparing advertising designers to web designers — and I realize I’m comparing apples and oranges, to a certain extent. The old-media equivalent of me would more likely be someone who, say, lays out text in books. How much do you think about the guy who decides the typeface, the margins, the weight and kind of paper stock, the sort of binding, and the way chapter heads look in the most recent novel you read? You probably didn’t think much about that guy at all unless you happen to have just read House of Leaves or some other such lit-experiment. And that’s the point. The text, the actual writing — the content — comes through while the ropes and pulleys are nearly transparent.

And I know — the web isn’t as pure as either of these old-media extremes. I understand that a website is part content presentation and, in most cases, part advertisement of some sort. Most website as like informational pamplets rather than television ads or novels. But these feel like important distinctions to understand. And, in my experience, again, most web designers / developers / whatever don’t understand these distinctions. Or, at least, don’t act like they do.

That’s a fucking long lead up to the secret… Here it is: Pitch usability. And then pitch your understanding of disabled accessibilty. And then make sure to pitch that you, as the sugar and a cherry on top of those things, have a good eye for making design attractive. That’s the order. Usability. Accessibility. Attractiveness. Because anyone who has a website that actually needs to work, needs things done in that order. LACS have a website that thousands of students and employers look at in order to get jobs and fill positions. They won’t care about how trendy the images used in the menus are. And any institution not designing accessibility (for blind users, primarily) may very well be breaking the law.

I remind you that I’m available to speak at conferences, seminars, and weddings. My speaking rate is $200 + airfare.

So, I am looking forward to talking with Dr. Payne tomorrow morning. I just like the guy, and I think he understands me when I talk about all this stuff — refreshing after several months of banging my head against the wall over the design of the AMODA site.

Which leads me to:

We had another Digital Showcase on Tuesday — that’s two night ago. Went well. I just kind of milled around the entire time. Had a couple gin and tonics (the blank white paper of alcoholic drinks, as I’ve taken to calling it) and played with the lighting for a while. Nothing terribly exciting happened. The music was good. The visual art was good. What can you say? I still haven’t figured out how to have good conversations with people at these things. I enjoy talking to people at dinner or over drinks or while driving in the car, but I still feel like a dork wandering around Texture looking for people to say hello to — simply because the conversations come off sounding (to me) so fucking shallow. It’s not the people — probably more just me acting nervous nad being a wierdo. Never been a big fan of large groups of people. Never even been a big fan of small talk, though I seem to participate in it thee days with increasing regularity. Ugh.

Don’t mind me. Just concentrating on the negative for a bit.

Anyway. Steve of Stars as Eyes (“is he the ‘stars’ or the ‘eyes,’ Cote’ asked) told me he’d have a track for the AMODA comp soon. And I talked to Ryan (“Suffix”). And got e-mails from Proem and Jacob Green. Which happily means we’ll have about eight tracks for the AMODA anniversay compliation CD soon — enough to get to work on the next steps. I find that exciting. Maybe it’s really not. so hard to tell anymore…

So what’s left? The wedding and the bachelor party?

I’ve got a headache and I’m hungry. So. Not now. Soon enough. Chris Graf got married and Jaylon Loyd had the bachelor party. Jaylon will get married this weekend (which means, I need to get a gift for him).

Until next time, America…