Lessons in Photography and Cookery, or “keep it light on the salt”

I was having a discussion a few weeks ago, and the subject of photography came up. The conversation was about image quality, and how sometimes photos on a smartphone can surpass those from a more professional setup.

Now, frankly, three are probably a myriad of reasons why that can happen.

Rather, what came up during the course of the conversation were my lighting preferences, especially where product photography is concerned. See, when shooting, I prefer to slightly under light objects (not too much, mind you). That way, I feel I have better control in my retouching when I bring the images into Photoshop. Now, I won’t fault anyone if they prefer to light objects more accurately. I’m just saying this is my preference.

And it got me to thinking of “why”. And this thinking led me to the subject of cooking (somehow all roads lead back to food in my world). In short, you can always under season a dish. You can add more salt or pepper until things are seasoned right. But once something gets too salty, it’s hard to “take it back”.

Same thing in photography. You can start with an underlit image and you can adjust it in Photoshop until you feel it’s right, but if you start with a shot that is overexposed or otherwise has too much light… Well, there’s not much you can do to remedy the situation at that point.

I’m not sure where I was going with this, but I guess that’s my advice. Be mindful when lighting, and find what works for you.

Now, could you pass the pepper, please?

 

Depth vs. breadth– the age-old argument

"Tools"-- Via New Old Stock
“Tools”– Via New Old Stock

A finely honed screwdriver. A Swiss Army knife.

We all have our favorite tools. But is one inherently better over the other?

Specialist– or Jack-of-all-Trades?

This has been a source of debate within the design community that has gone on for a long time now, and it’s likely to continue. Be a screwdriver or a multi-tool. Specialize or generalize. At its core is the difference between depth and breadth. Peanut butter or chocolate. Pepsi or Coke. “Less filling” or “tastes great”.

(For those not familiar, that last one was a nod to a Miller Lite campaign that was big in the 70s and 80s– here’s a sample of one of the ads)

But I realize it’s both. Especially in today’s marketplace, where global competition is so fierce. Sure, it’s important that we become focused in some area. That we have depth of knowledge in something. It helps establish us as thought leaders, experts in our field. It helps to set us apart from other professionals.

At the same time it’s important that we’re at least familiar with a lot of things outside our area of focus. If we’re a print designer, then knowing at least the basics of things like web design or packaging. Or even cooking. If our focus is on web and mobile design, maybe things like motion, or video, even music– may be a good thing. It’s this breadth of knowledge that helps balance out, and complements, that expertise. And, it also helps to give further depth, since things learned in other disciplines can be brought in and re-interpreted through that design lens. Or whatever your area of focus may be.

Is one better than the other?

So, the debate may continue. People will continue to argue for each side. And, each one has its merits, sure. But discussions on whether you should be a specialist, or jack-of-all-trades, will go on. Whether it’s better to be a hammer or a Swiss Army knife. Whether one is better than the other.

I say be both. You’ll likely be the better professional– even the better person– for it.

Illustrator tip | Packaging it up

Funny story. Well, maybe. I was brushing my teeth yesterday morning, thinking about the whole Sony/“The Interview” kerfuffle. Now, I have my thoughts about that, and I may share them separately at some point. But as I was brushing my teeth, I remembered another useful improvement the folks at Adobe have made to Illustrator.

Often when working with Illustrator, you may find that you’re not only creating art within the program, but you’re also placing in external elements– like images. These can be placed either as links, or embedded directly into the file. On one hand, a linked file allows for a leaner Illustrator file. The linked image can be edited externally (think, for example, of color-correcting a photo or putting a clipping path on the image), and the changes would be reflected back in Illustrator once saved. However, send that file out without also sending the linked image, and you’ll run into trouble.

An embedded image eliminates the risk of missing links, by sheer virtue of it being part of the Illustrator file. The downside of this is you Illustrator file will likely balloon in size (depending on the size of the link, and if you work with high resolution images, you can bet it will). You will also no longer be able to edit the embedded file.

Enter packaged files

Packaged files (also sometime called collected files) solve the issue of potentially missed links without unnecessarily increasing file sizes. If you’ve ever used Adobe’s InDesign or QuarkXpress (the “Coke and Pepsi” of page layout programs– so to speak), you’ve likely packaged or collected files.

Nice package!

Essentially, a packaged file (I’m going to stick with that term, since this is what Adobe uses) is a separate folder that’s created that includes the original file,  and can include all links and fonts. It’s a real convenient way to send files to third parties or printers so that they have everything that they would need to open the file with (in theory) no errors or discrepancies.

When sending files for others to modify and work off of, I think packaged files are great. When sending out to printers… That’s a different story (personally, I prefer sending press-ready PDFs whenever possible, but that’s a discussion for another day).

In programs like InDesign or Quark, this feature has been built in to the software for a long time. Illustrator users were not so lucky, and were left to rely on outside help. In this case, plug-in software. When I first started working on packaging production art (back in 2005), this was the way things were done. I believe the software was called Art Bin. This piece of software collected Illustrator files in a manner similar to Quark or InDesign.

There had to be a better way

Unfortunately, a native feature wasn’t available in Illustrator at the time (I believe it was v.9), and users were left with these third-party solutions. The alternative to packaging files being embedding photography/links and outlining type. This at least ensured all image elements are included and there are no font-related issues.

And so it was until not too long ago. I’ve been working primarily on packaging since then (both freelance and in-house). My software of choice is Illustrator, and a lot of times I use photos or other outside images. Up until recently, if I wanted to send files to a printer, I resorted to the embedded file and outlined type method of file output, more out of necessity than choice. Nowadays, it’s 100% a matter of choice and minimizing the impact a printing bureau may have on the content of the art supplied.

Here we are

With the latest version of Illustrator (as of the end of 2014 we’re at CC, their new subscription-based model), Adobe’s bridged the gap between software apps and users now have the ability of packaging the art like they would in InDesign. Let’s look at how it works.

For this tutorial (I guess that’s the best description), I created a file and named it GEERD.ai (GEERD™, for those unfamiliar, is something I’ve come to call myself. It’s a combination of “geek” and “nerd”.). I placed a picture of myself, a circle with beveled edges and some type.

GEERD-document
This is what the files looks like

You have the basic elements of a file that would make sense could be packaged out. In order to package the file, Illustrator has provided a menu item. It’s located under “File/Package…”

GEERD-pkg-menu
This is where the “Package” menu is located

So, if I wanted to package my file, this is the menu option I would select. From here on out, it’s a pretty straightforward process. After selecting “package”, you’re prompted to select where your files will be saved. You can leave the default location (which should place it in the same folder as the original piece of art), or a different place altogether. It will also give you the option to (re-)name the folder, if you so desire. All this is up to you, the user, to decide.

package-file-loc
This box allows you to select the location where the packaged folder will be placed

After selecting your package folder’s location, Illustrator then moves on to package out your file into its own folder. When it’s done you’ll get this:

pkg-complete
The packaging of your files is now complete!

You can view the packaged folder to make sure everything’s copacetic by hitting “ok”…

pkg-folder-window
The main package folder sitting in the folder it was saved.

… and then opening the folder itself.

pkg-folder-contents
This is everything that’s inside the packaged folder– including a PDF.

After that, the folder can be burned on a disk, put on a flash drive, or zipped and either emailed (size permitting) or sent via any number of cloud-based file sharing services (like Dropbox, Google Drive, Copy, Microsoft’s OneDrive, just to name a few).

 

So there it is. A quick, easy way to take files and all their ancillary elements and put them in one folder for ease of transport or distribution. I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and I’l see you here next time.

OK, so maybe I won’t really see you. At least not physically. But your comments or input would be greatly appreciated.

Looking at Point vs. Paragraph type

As someone who currently works mostly in packaging, the bulk of my time is spent elbow-deep in Illustrator. Because of this, I’m always on the lookout for ways to make my life and workflow easier– from so-called “life hacks”, different uses for existing tools and apps, to brand new ways of doing things. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there.

A reoccurring issue is scaling of type and making copy edits. Sometimes this involves adding copy to the existing blocks of text.

That’s where things get interesting. and the issue I’m looking at only affects type in Illustrator (I tried to replicate these same issues in both Photoshop and InDesign, and was not able to do so, so I’m going to presume it’s a situation unique to Illustrator. Don’t go sending hate mail if I’m wrong.).

 

A Brief Explanation

There are two types of type in Illustrator– point type and area (also called “paragraph”) type (an explanation of the two can be found here). If you just click on the type tool, place the cursor somewhere and start typing– you’d be laying down point type. On the other hand, if you take the type tool, make a text box, and then add type inside the box. That’s paragraph type. We’re going to be looking at the two, how scaling affects them, and how one can be turned into the other.

We’ll start with point type.

 

Let’s Dive In, Shall We?

point type- original
This is what a line of point type looks in Illustrator

For the sake of this demonstration, I typed the above example in Illustrator. It could really be a piece of copy of any length. The important thing to notice is that, even though it looks like a text box, there’s an open circle on the little handle on the right side. Remember that.

Here’s the thing. Let’s say I typed this in and decided I needed to make the type bigger for some reason (maybe, for the sake of argument, we’re making it into a headline). I would need to make the text box bigger in order to accommodate the larger point size. To do this, I would grab one of the corners and extend the box as needed.

 

point type- stretched
This is the same line of point type when I try to make the text box bigger.

Not exactly what we wanted, was it?

The problem with point type is that it treats the contents almost as if it were a graphic. So whichever way you scale the box, the type will move along with it– except it won’t do it proportionally. Enter paragraph type.

 

Going with the Flow– with Paragraph Type

paragraph type - original
This sentence was written as paragraph type.

At first glance, it looks pretty much like the point type, doesn’t it? But there’s one slight difference. Notice how the circle is now filled in? Let’s say I also want to change the size of the type. I grab one of the corners and open up the box. This is what happens.

paragraph type - opened box
The type didn’t get distorted this time. Sweet!

This time, the type stayed the same, and only the container box was affected. Now we can change point size, font– whatever, without having to worry about our type getting all distorted.

 

Change is Good

In previous versions of Illustrator, before you could make a conversion, you’d have to find a script online that would convert point type to paragraph type– a relatively easy search, frankly. You’d have to install it, select the type, then run the script. Not altogether complicated. Just tedious.

In the latest version of Illustrator (CC– or v.18, for those that would rather keep track that way), Adobe has finally simplified the process, and they’ve done it without the need for third-party scripts. Remember the little open circle at the end of the point type text box? Click on it. It will fill in, indicating that the text box is now paragraph type.

Like I said. Easy.

 

A Caveat

From time to time you will probably find yourself working with legacy files (files created with previous versions of a particular piece of software). If you do, you might find that what you thought was a bunch of paragraphs is, in fact, now a series of lines and separate blocks of words. I wish I could say you could select multiple lines of point type and turn them into a nice paragraph. But I can’t.

Maybe in the next version of Illustrator.

 

In Conclusion

Although I prefer it, paragraph type isn’t inherently better than point type. I suppose if you have small amounts of  copy– like in a logo, for example, using point type would be perfectly fine. However, if you’re dealing with multiple lines of copy, or you need to work with blocks of type like you would in a layout program (such as InDesign or QuarkXpress), then setting your copy as paragraph type would definitely be the way to go.

I hope this tutorial helped you, and I would love to hear your comments or questions. Drop me a line in the comments and let me know what you think.

 

Design tip for Tuesday, February 18, 2014

If you work in the most current version if your software of choice…
When creating files that you know will be handled by others outside your organization, presume that they will not have the latest version, and “downsave” the file (It also helps to outline fonts, but that’s a discussion for another time). This should help prevent conversion issues like unnecessary clipping paths, and type-filled text boxes breaking up in odd places.

Sharing is caring– about who you’re sharing with

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead
— Benjamin Franklin

This morning, I was asked about some files that I had been asked to placed in Dropbox. I knew I had sent them already, so I told the person to look in her folder (we have shared folders set up to make it easier to “sneaker-net” either large files or multiple files more easily. She did, and replied “they’re not there. There’s nothing there”.

What the–?!

I went into my folder. Maybe, for some strange, unforeseen reason I had put them there instead (I knew I hadn’t, but figured I’d check anyway).

Nothing there, either.

Panic. How could–? When–? Who could–? Then I remembered seeing pop-up notices that files had been deleted yesterday. I just chalked it up to her removing the files I had sent and storing them locally. How did they just disappear? Did someone delete them? And why?

I was ticked off. And determined to figure out how this happened and who perpetrated such a thing.

I went online and logged in to Dropbox. Surely there had to be a way to see who had accessed the folders recently. If there wasn’t, an immediate password change would ensue. Either I was getting to the bottom of this, or I was locking things up. Fast.

I looked in the Dropbox menu for the shared folders and realized a couple of things. First, neither I or my coworker was the owner of our respective shared folder (never realized I wasn’t the folder creator, since it had my name on it). Second, one of the folders had an additional person set up to have access.

Turns out the owner/creator of the folders– according to the trail provided by Dropbox– had gone and deleted the contents of the folders. Now, I understand that, as a folder admin, the contents were counting against their storage space, and maybe they needed it for some purpose. That’s fine. My issue was in not being told they were deleting the contents.

Thankfully, Dropbox allows you to recover deleted files within 30 days (I didn’t know how initially, but Dropbox has a nice FAQ– win!) , so I was able to restore everything. In the process, I created new share folders, and I assigned limited user access.

My takeaway? An obvious one, but one I had not had the presence of mind to remember in this context– always be aware of who you’re sharing content with. And, from time to time, it’s not a bad idea to review who has access to what. Especially when it comes to online content, whether you generate it in the form of Facebook status updates, tweets, blog posts and comments, or files stored online.

Shortcuts CAN be a good thing

I’ve been doing quite a bit of photo retouching this past week, and in the process realized that I wasn’t being as efficient in my workflow as i could. I decided to consciously seek out the single-keystroke shortcuts for those tools that I was using the most. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • J= healing brush
  • B= paint brush
  • V= move (the crosshair arrows at the very top of the tools palette)
  • L= lasso
  • M= marquee
  • G= gradient
  • P= paths

Now, I realize that these are pretty basic, and that there are many more single-key shortcuts (and we’re not even getting into multi-key shortcuts, like image or canvas sizing), but I’m willing to bet that a lot of us out there suffer from this same condition of convenience, and just move the mouse/pen over to the specific tool on the palette, thinking that in the short run that one step really makes no discernible difference. Whether it does or not is another matter, and entirely up to you to decide.

I, for one, plan on continuing to use these and try to make my workflow a tiny bit more efficient.

Craigslist ads– sniper rifle or drum of dynamite?

Craigslist ads are a pretty good value for the dollar, if you ask me. Where else do you have such a large place where you can put up an ad virtually anywhere in the world– for nothing.

That being said, these free ads can be a pain sometimes, because of this very public nature. It’s almost like those ads you see in laundromats, dorms, and other public spots where you just tear off a little strip with a phone number on it. Anybody can snag one, so for every legit inquiry, there’s probably at least 5 spammy ones tha come your way. And in this age of the Internet, those spammy ones can potentially steal personal information, not to mention zap time from following up on actual, bona fide potential clients.

You could also– quite reasonably– argue how it’s like whispering in the middle of  Grand Central– at rush hour. But we’ll leave that argument for another day and focus instead on their bang for the buck. After all, free stuff’s good. Right?
image courtesy of morguefile.com
Now, I’m not going to go into a whole thing on how to place these ads. What I want to focus on are the ways you can reply to these ads. When you place an ad on Craigslist you have the option of showing a link to (a) your actual email, (b) displaying an anonymized email link, or (c) hiding the email altogether. For the most part, the ads I see (and have placed myself) have an anonymized link, which forwards/redirects the message to your actual email inbox. This is supposed to protect you by keeping this bit of personal info– your email– off the ad and the intitial contact.

Is this a good way of doing things? Maybe

Recently, I’ve switched tactics and decided to hide the email address completely. Instead, at the very end of the listing, I give out my website address in the form of rafaelarmstrong [dot] com, and direct folks to use the contact form I have set up there.

This results in a couple of things. First, it weeds out the people who may just be replying to any and all posts that are remotely related to whatever project they may/may not have on deck by forcing them to physically type in the address in their browser, visit my site and navigate to the contact form– hopefully after checking out the samples I have online.

Secondly, the form itself has a captcha set up, which helps in reducing– if not outright eliminating– spam bots that would just troll Craigslist ads for email links.

Now, I’ll probably get less hits off that ad than if I just left the email address as a “reply to” (even if it’s anonymized), but the quality of replies is improved slightly. And, isn’t that what we ultimately are looking for?

What do you think? Am I on to something? Is it naive and foolish to even place ads on Craigslist? Leave me your thought and suggestions below.

Gibbs’ Rules For Freelancers– rule #9

If, like me, you are a fan of NCIS, then no doubt you are aware that there is a set of rules (50, to be precise, although as of January 2010, we have only been given less than half, and not in any particular order) that Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs lives by. Periodically they’re mentioned or referenced, and, thanks to the wonders of the internet, folks far more obsessive and anal-retentive about these things than I have collected them. Well, it occurred to me one night that some of these “rules” can be adapted and applied to the lives and work of designers, and freelancers in particular. In the spirit of the show, I will also discuss these from time to time in a random manner.

Without further ado, the first installment of what I’d like to call “Gibbs’ Rules For Freelancers.”

Gibbs' rules for design

Rule #9. Never go anywhere without a knife (from episode 1.13, “One Shot, One Kill”)

A knife, in this case, may not be necessary (although a lot of folks, myself included, occasionally carry a Swiss Army knife or Leatherman-type tool). However, designers– and freelancers in particular– would do well to carry a USB flash drive.
It’s simple, really. There may be times when you’re working on-site and have to take files with you. Maybe you go to an initial meeting with a potential new client and end up picking up some business before leaving their office. They want you to take their logo, maybe some documents you’ll need as part of the brief. Having a flash drive with you would certainly make things easier. There wouldn’t be the need to have anything emailed (which, considering the recent rash of issues some designers and bloggers have experienced, could be a hazard). There would be less of a need to commit another password to memory because files need to be FTP’d. The client wouldn’t have to burn a disk for you to take.

You could also look at it as “being green”. You wouldn’t necessarily need to burn disks to take files to a local printer or copy center. Just dupe them to your thumb drive and have them copy it off to their machines.

My flash drives


Personally, I have 3 that I’ve picked up over the last 5 years– a 256MB that I rarely use, and my two workhorses: A 1GB and a 2GB drive– and I rarely leave the house to go anywhere without at least one of these. On them I carry PDFs of my resumé and a one-sheet of work samples.

These days flash drives have become so inexpensive that it’s almost silly for designers or other creative professionals to not have one. If you have one and haven’t really put them to use, maybe it’s time to reconsider. If you don’t have one, you’d do well to invest in one.