Geeky baby announcments

A couple of years ago, we announced the impending arrival of small ginger #3.  My Mrs, however, is the shy type and didn’t want me to broadcast it on social media.  I made a deal with her that I could do it if I wrote it in code.  I was just surfing through my Facebook timeline and found it again and thought I’d share since it made me laugh. Written in AS3, for my sins. :-/
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A grumpy post about Dinovember and digital creativity

Family ipad time

Standard Sunday morning iPad sessions

This week’s cool thing on the internet: A couple set toy dinosaurs up into little vignettes to give their kids a nice surprise in the morning. And I love it. I do. It’s quirky and fun and awesome – it’s dinosaurs being cute, it would be pretty hard to mess that up. Way to engage little minds. I do similar stuff by dressing up as a tiger and letting my fat tummy be a racetrack, I just thought that it was the fun bit of parenting, when you’re not clearing up shit and doing all the washing in the world. I didn’t realise that playing with my kids was a new frontier of creativity.
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Geek R and D

Andy in carbonite 3d print

Here’s the slides from my Reasons To Be Creative elevator pitch. As usual, they don’t make a massive amount of sense without context but you’ll get the general idea. Have to say, this is one of the toughest things I’ve done. That time limit is brutal, particularly if, like me, you’re more comfortable talking around a subject rather than delivering it concisely.

The point I’m mostly making here is that structured learning just doesn’t work for me, and I think it’s almost impossible in your busy work day. Basically, unless you’re a student or very well established in your field, having extended periods of research just simply won’t happen if you try to make a project out of it. However, it’s SO vital to the growth and motivation of creatively-minded teams of all disciplines, that you really must make it a central part of your culture, and the way I’ve always found to work best is to encourage people to indulge their passions.

Many of the speakers at RTBC talked about the importance of play and exploration and I think this is something we only do when we are genuinely interested in achieving something. For my 4 year old, that normally involves beating his brother at something (or with something more often than not). For me, it’s doing geeky cool – I mean come on, who wouldn’t want a model of themselves in carbonite amirite?

It amazes me that, with a little bit of pissing about, I can achieve things like this:

Andy in carbonite 3d print

…and the lessons that we’ve learned to get there mean the team have a fully rounded understanding of both the theory and practice of 3d printing, which we can, in future, utilise for the benefit of our clients.

Thanks to those that caught it. I’m going to be expanding on some of these themes at my Designer’s Fiesta talk later this month if you’re London based.

oh, the Kinect video will probably be missing from the slideshare, you can find it here.

Andy.:

Thoughts on being creative. #reasonsto day one…

He probably didn’t know it, but Paul Trani set the tone. “[I don't like the term Creative...it's used too readily]“. You know what Paul, I couldn’t agree with you more. Everybody wants to be creative like everybody wants to be a geek (and there is another word which is rapidly devaluing). From the vacuous numptys on The Apprentice to every Dalston Douche that emin their way into their 15 mins…creativity is perhaps the most overrated word in the lexicon.

And yet, here I am, sitting at a conference called Reasons to Be Creative, bearing the lofty title “Creative technologist”…sitting, in fact, in the exact same seat I was two years ago when this conference was still broadly a tech conference for a now almost indefensible tech. I said once before that conferences like this are creative oxygen for me, this one in particular. I don’t know if John has been paying attention but their logo now shows a recharged battery, which, after a pretty hefty couple of months at the agency coalface, couldn’t come at a better time.

My own creativity has wavered, this I know. At the risk of giving a standard parent-and-manager whinge, there just aren’t hours in the day for the work I want to do in the face of the work I must do. Repeated throughout the day, by Grant Skinner, by Amit Pitaru, by Carlos Ulloa (who needs a separate blog post soon), is the need to play, to explore and to create. It’s something I’ve talked about at length and a central part of the culture of my team at work. I will say it again in the Elevator Pitch I’ll give at this conference in two days time. But now, sitting on the pisshead’s train back to London after marvelling at the ease with which Stefan Sagmeister once again makes being a world-renowned artist and creative seem, I *know*, really *KNOW* that I’ve been coasting, and that I’m not nearly as creative as I would like to think (or project) I am, not through a lack of ideas or skill perhaps, but because I simply haven’t picked up a tool and contributed to something.

It’s the thing I love about Reasons.to – it simultaneously lets you feel like you can achieve anything you want to, whilst at the same time, reality checking you that having the thought is not enough. You must do. Dominic Wilcox (whose work I did not know but instantly fell in love with) kept sketchbooks and littered his talk with cartoonish inventions that stick in the mind more somehow than his considered (and presumably well funded) work. The flow of ideas was irresistible…ideas of all scales from throwaway gags to incredibly emotive and thoughtful pieces of great depth.

I made some resolutions to myself today about the gulf that exists between having an idea and seeing it executed, even if that’s just a sketch, or an outline or a snippet of code or a todo list. It’s not difficult to find Reasons To Be Creative. It’s quite another thing to do something about it.

Reasons to be Creative (and to blog…)

Hey. Long time no post. My bad, sometimes real life just kind of pops up and diverts all attention. Since my last post I’ve become a dad for the 3rd time, launched a pretty epic responsive site for British Gas and built a great development team here at Grand Union who are already doing me proper proud. In my drafts folder I’ve got posts on the subject of appropriate use of technology (a pro-QR rant actually believe it or not), the perils of ajax SEO and some thoughts on responsive which I will get around to finishing up and publishing shortly. In fact I was thinking of joining Stef’s Sunday Post initiative, the only problem being is that Sunday’s are just about the worst time for me to do anything productive.

So, one small bit of news just to make this blog post vaguely worth reading, excuses aside.  Actually it’s a pretty big bit of news since it’s fulfilling a huge goal for me – I’m going to be delivering an Elevator Pitch at Reasons to be Creative this September.  RTBC was born from the ashes of Flash On The Beach which I’ve blogged about extensively before in these pages.  It’s been a highwatermark for me for years – solid creative oxygen, reviving my spirit and reminding me why I’m in this industry.  So I’m very proud indeed to be involved.  I’ll be doing a short 3 min talk, alongside my fellow elevator pitchers, on the subject of 3d printing and geek dream fulfilment!  It’s actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently which I’m hoping to expand into a bigger talk later in the year.

I urge you to attend though – not to see me – but to see  the likes of Memo Akten, Helicar and Lewis, Jay Eliot Stocks and Remy Sharp (I say begrudingly, I’m still not sure I’ve forgiven him for his blinkered anti-flash talk at fotb a few years ago…he is a bloody amazing speaker though) in the lovely confines of the Brighton dome.

See you there!

An introduction to Twitter, and other slideshares

Have started uploaded various presentations to Slideshare this week.  here’s an oldy but goodie from a couple of years ago – an internal presentation I gave at Sky for a team that was not well versed in social media but, like most of us, under pressure to understand and use it better.  This was not aimed as a piece of strategy at all, just a high level introduction to the service and how to get involved with it.  Others new to Twitter may find it useful.

 

You can find various other presentations by me at my Slideshare page.

Flash – A call for sanity

or, I can’t believe I still have to discuss this shit…

Herein, are some notes, a slidedeck and some source code relating to a talk I gave for Academy Class this week, regarding Flash’s place in the web and beyond.  I was driven to put the talk together due to the sheer amount of misinformation, misrepresentation and outright idiocy that seems to still surround the use of Flash as a rich media technology.  The fact that we are still having to have this conversation depresses me hugely and I find the constant placing of ideologies (like open – not a synonym for ‘better’ btw) ahead of a sensible assessment of the appropriate technology to deliver a project successfully really tiring.  The lecture was well attended and the post-talk debate stimulating and balanced so I do believe that there is still a life for Flash.  Key points to take away:

1. Flash, and any other plugin runtime, exists to augment the browser’s native capabilities uniformly across available platforms.  If the browser can handle it, then there is no need to use flash.

2. HTML5 development is NOT stable across all the platforms that a typical commercial build needs to target.  As developers, we expend a huge amount of resource in hacking legacy support into our web applications.  The most stable code is always optimised for it’s runtime – if the runtime (i.e. browser) is fragmented, then it’s very hard to do this.  Rich media builds are often complex and Flash should be regarded as a viable technology for rich media heavy lifting.

3. Not everything has to be built for mobile and not everything should.  Mobile is an inherently different use case to desktop browsing and ‘compatibility’ is not a virtue in of itself.  Know when to support it, when to degrade down to it, when to branch the experience completely for mobile, and when to ignore it.  The lack of mobile support for flash is a red herring.  It’s not built for it and that’s ok.  Desktop experiences are still the most consumed digital content by some margin.  Mobile web browsing does not, and probably should not in many cases, need to be a rich experience.  We have apps for that!

4. As the browser’s capabilities have evolved, so have the flash platform’s.  It is vital that the developer community place pressure on ‘bad’ legacy flash code, particularly in rich media advertising which is still largely built to old specifications, and to educate and advocate for the platform’s capabilities and best practise.

I hope that this will be the last pro-flash post I have to make.  I hope that we can appreciate the multi-faceted toolbox of frameworks and runtimes that we use to create our fantastic medium objectively.  I hope that I don’t have to do this all again next year…

Slideshare deck
PDF with notes coming soon
Source code for the air mobile demonstration  (I’ll add some more comments etc soon)

10 things I have learned working for Sky

So there it is, a little shy of 7 years under my belt at that most divisive of entities, the corporate media empire.  My time at Sky has been characterised by a mixture of emotion – huge frustration, great passion, an organisation that is capable of the most amazing leaps of imagination and sharp business acumen and yet cannot address it’s own, relatively simple internal problems.  Most of all, a lot of lessons learned.  As I prepared to leave Sky to take on the role of Technical Director at Grand Union, I put together a short presentation for my team, reflecting on my time there and the great many things that we achieved, failed to achieve and aspired to.  Here, then, are ten things that I learned working for BSkyB.:

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The creative gene pool

“Good artists borrow, great artists steal”.

So goes the oft-repeated quote, normally attributed to Picasso, Wilde or Eliot.  In researching the quote last week whilst preparing my final internal talk at Sky which reflected on my time here (to be posted shortly), I found this fascinating investigation into it’s providence.  The full quote, it transpires, derives from a piece that TS Eliot wrote:

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

TS Eliot.

This ties in neatly to a principle that I have followed throughout my creative life, both in technology and in writing music:  The gene pool for inspiration in any creative endeavour needs to run broad and deep.  Replicating directly from within one’s peer group leads inevitably to watered down ideas and shuts off any possibility of producing original work.  I’ve never understood those that only listen slavishly to one style of music, or those that repeat design tropes again and again because they are told that it is a ‘standard’.  It has also shocked me how many times in creative brainstorms somebody has presented a portfolio of competitor’s work and said ‘we could just do this’.  It is useful to refer to pre-existing work as a touchstone or mood-setting device, something to direct the conversation and provide a reference point, but to simply steal an idea and execute it with your client’s branding is unforgivable.

Some time ago I saw Contrast  give a fascinating talk about expectations and convention that I still refer to on a regular basis.  The slideshare seems to have disappeared but there’s a good rundown of the talk here.  Key to innovation, they claimed, was the breaking of conventions.  A wireframe IA derived from accepted wisdom can only really be designed and coded one way.  Whilst this gives us consistency and a certain recieved robustness, it can also hold back progress and removes any possibility of new, better paradigms emerging (until somebody like Apple, with no regard for convention, comes along and does it anyway).  Though there are clearly use cases for conventions, such as the symbol for a  play-button or a traffic light system of colour coding (there was a lovely example of a ticket machine that chose to flag a successful purchase up with a bright red flashing light!), there are also clearly times to break such convention, particularly if one is moving away from that convention’s native environment and into a new context (c.f. my hatred of skeuomorphism and relief that Microsoft are bucking the trend with Windows 8).

Influence and inspiration are key factors of the creative process to be embraced, but they are at their most powerful when they are abstracted away from the task in hand and netted from the widest possible array of sources (authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest), then the concepts behind them transferred into the creative ideas as they emerge.

 

 

A case for Flash advocacy

I write, slightly incredulous that we’re still having to cover this topic in 2012, in response to an article that my learned colleague Jason Langdon published last week about the future of the flash platform and the apparent lack of advocacy by it’s parent company, Adobe. Whilst I don’t agree with everything he says – Flash is far from a de facto standard for rich media delivery and there are many areas of rich interaction on the web where it has rightfully been superseded by the browser runtime itself (photo galleries, straightforward video and audio playback etc) – he nonetheless raises some important points that the Flash developer community and Adobe need to address if the technology is to have a future.

The problem, however, is that it’s very hard to have a rational discussion about the platform without the conversation immediately denigrating into blinkered ideology and zealotry….and that’s amongst the developer community – speak to clients and the situation for Flash is even bleaker. The staggering amount of misinformation about the capabilities of the technology, it’s reach, it’s consistency of execution across an ever-more fragmented browser landscape and the efficiencies (or lack thereof) of developing in it make. We recently attended a talk on HTML5 held at the Google Campus in Old Street where the key example of how HTML5 had replaced Flash for rich site development, didn’t work on the iPad, on mobile browsers or in many older desktop browsers. It is disingenuous to say the least to make such a claim, particularly given that the ‘death of flash’ was largely predicated on it not being implemented in the browser on iOS.

Still, there is cause for concern about this misinformation being the prevailing attitude and I certainly agree that Adobe has done little to stem the tide. Here’s some points to consider:

1. Developer tooling

Flash Builder was a weak product and most flash devs that I know use third party tools like Flashdevelop and FDT. The lack of a decent debugging tool looks like it’s finally been addressed in Monocle, but I have grave concerns around the game-dev-centric nature of the mooted improvements to the platform. If Adobe would spend less time on failed designer-centric workflow tools like Catalyst, and more time on proper application development tools, frameworks and libraries, it would be a much more attractive platform. In fact, if I were Adobe, I would be aggressively targeting budding iOS/Android developers with an accessible IDE, framework and component library (a la jQuery Mobile) for mobile application development, alongside tools for debugging and packaging apps simply.

2. Performance

It cannot be denied that the Flash Player runtime is not optimal compared to many other runtimes. The roadmap appears to be leaning toward a re-written VM and overhaul of Actionscript which would go some way to helping restore developer’s confidence in targeting it. A re-brand may also be worth considering at this stage.

3. Honesty

There isn’t actually any reason why Flash should be in trouble. The runtime is still widely supported (95% of global clients), simple to deploy to and is more powerful than ever. It’s current predicament seems entirely down to Adobe’s failure to handle the PR of the platform and to be seen to be reactive rather than standing firm by it. In acknowledging the platform’s weaknesses and playing to it’s strengths instead of thinking that you can just ignore it’s critics or whitewash over what are often fair comments, you can give the platform it’s space to succeed. Literally, take it out of the ‘race’ for front end dominance and let it find it’s space as the best method of cross-platform rich application development.

On this point, Lee Brimelow said it best at FOTB last year: Flash’s role on the web was *always* to enhance the capabilities of the browser. If the browser can now handle it natively, then flash doesn’t need to be there…but there are always other things that developers want to be able to do that even the latest browser builds can’t manage consistently (DRM, geocoding, microphone/camera access to name just three). It’s shouldn’t be HTML5 vs Flash, but HTML5 PLUS Flash.

4. Rich banner advertising

We recently received specifications for rich banner adverts in flash from Doubleclick which comprised code snippets (the clicktag) and a guide to implementation written in AS1. Banner creation makes up a considerable amount of bread and butter work for many agencies and freelancers, and it also often delivered by design creatives without such an extensive knowledge of good practice or the issues above. There are well known conflicts between the different versions of the AVM in flash player which provide legacy support for the older flash specifications. If your browser or application is crashing due to flash, the very likely culprit is a flash advert rather than a well built application. This is something that both the rich media networks, the major commissioners for advertising creative, creative agencies and Adobe themselves must address urgently. There is still a good use case for Flash in advertising but it will only harm the platform if not implemented to a contemporary standard.

Ultimately, flash professionals love the platform because it is fast, intuitive, powerful and very flexible and I concur with my colleague that the way it is being treated in the marketplace leaves much to be desired. It is our responsibility as a community to continue to support and advocate for it (and that includes maintaining our opensource projects and shouting from the rooftops about our successes) and to continue to place pressure on Adobe to treat the platform well and not sideline it into oblivion due to a perceived pressure from the market.

n.b. I’m hoping to give a flash-centric lecture in ‘response’ to the HTML5 lecture we saw at creative class later this year. Follow me on Twitter to keep in touch!