The Rock and the Hard Place for WordPress

January 15 2020

Let’s imagine you want to start blogging, or need to make a small website. Where do you start?

For many years, the default recommendation was WordPress. It was “easy to install,” “easy to update,” and “easy to use” for people who weren’t familiar with CMS technology. But I’m not sure this is true anymore, and I no longer recommend WordPress to clients.

If you’re not a developer, WordPress is not where you should start with your website. You would be better served by Squarespace, Ghost, et al. Squarespace lets you design an entire website with drag and drop features, and Ghost lets you start blogging with beautiful themes and a premium hosted service. There’s no need to install anything with either platform. And if you need to set up an online store, both Squarespace and Shopify will make your life much easier than WordPress and WooCommerce.

I’ve also noticed something else in the past couple years: WordPress is not easy to use. The backend is a monster, and Gutenberg has made it harder for my clients to use — not easier. Almost any other CMS I’ve tried has been easier for my clients to grasp than WordPress.

If you are technically proficient, it’s getting harder and harder to recommend WordPress. Thanks to Gutenberg and the increasing use of Rest APIs and Javascript, along with the old PHP core, developing for WordPress becomes more nightmarish seemingly with every passing week.

And if you have any opinions about web development at all, WordPress’s attempts to get you to code “the WordPress way” will frustrate or anger you, depending on your tolerance levels.

If you’re a modern PHP developer, you could use Bedrock to build WordPress, but it’s still WordPress. Bedrock doesn’t solve the problems that Gutenberg and the plugin architecture create. (Trust me: I built this blog with Bedrock, and as of January 2020, I plan on getting off WordPress as soon as possible.)

The problem is this: inevitably, nearly every WordPress site eventually becomes a mess of spaghetti code and plugins that make actually using the site impossible.

Developers (or technically-minded people) would be better off with almost any of the myriad CMSes that are available: Ghost, Craft, Kirby, Grav, Statamic, Shopify, and more are all typically easier to develop for than WordPress. (I haven’t even mentioned static generators.) The options are limitless.

All of this puts WordPress between a rock and a hard place. If developers and regular people should avoid it, who is it for?

I no longer have an answer.

Tools

Sony’s New Telephoto Lenses

June 12 2019

Sony is plugging some of the last holes in their mirrorless lens lineup today with the announcement of their new 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 and 600mm F45 lenses. These lenses look quite nice — at the very least, they’re competitive with the offerings from Nikon and Canon.

I’m not the target market for the 600mm lens, but the 200-600mm lens looks great. The variable aperture isn’t extreme, which is fantastic. (I’m aware this isn’t the first lens of this kind, but it’s the first for the Sony system, so let me be happy.)

With that telephoto, you could now buy the trinity from Sony for pro work, and get a large telephoto for wildlife and birding and be good to go. The pricing on that model is fair too. Altogether, a much more sensible lens than the 70-300mm Sony’s had for a couple years — so long as it will fit in your camera bag. Plus, if you’re a crazy person who needs a 900mm focal length, the lens is compatible with tele-converters.1

I thought $13k seemed a little high for the 600mm lens, but it’s in line with Canon’s offering (and I bet it’s just as good). I want to complain about the price, but both these prices are more or less what I’d expect from Sony: pricey, but fair (for the 200-600mm) and eye-watering, outrageously expensive (for the 600mm).

Also, don’t miss DP Review's interview with Sony’s Yasuyuki Nagata about the optical design of these lenses. As usual, the editor’s note after the interview is a well-written analysis of the playing field.

Out of all the obvious focal lengths, this just leaves us without a 35mm f1.8. Sony’s lens design team has been on fire recently, and I’m pretty stoked on what they can pull off.

  1. I am exactly this sort of crazy person.
Cameras Tools

Thoughts on the New Mac Pro and Apple’s Pro Display

June 7 2019

I’m a Mac fanboy, and the new Mac Pro looks astounding. The Afterburner card, as Apple’s calling it, makes it possible to render three 8K video streams of RAW footage in real time. Mind-blowing.

Of course, the Afterburner is a module that can be installed after purchase, or when you order a Mac Pro. Every Mac Pro can be configured to the user’s needs. So while I don’t need to edit three 8K streams of video without proxy files, I definitely need a ton of RAM and some solid GPU options (seriously, Lightroom turns every machine into a jet at takeoff). I could see a future version of myself relying on a version of the Mac Pro Apple unveiled this week.

The display looks incredible too. The Pro Display XDR (seriously, why didn’t they just call it the Pro Display?) looks amazing. But it’s going to cost nearly $10k in Canada to get the display and the stand — because the stand alone comes in at $999 USD. And that’s without the Mac Pro. That’s just the monitor.

For some professional environments, that cost is minimal. But for me, it’s more than it’s worth.

And I get it: I’m not necessarily the target market. The freelancing creative pro is not the upper echelon Apple is going for. But despite that, I miss the days of the Thunderbolt Display. I’d love to see Apple take the 5K display out of their iMacs and put that in a nice enclosure again, just like the old times.

There’s a serious gap in the market where a Retina-resolution, well-designed monitor could exist.

If you wanted a standalone Retina 27”-class monitor, you’d better order the LG UltraFine 5K display. Before it sells out. But it’s also nearly $2000 Canadian, and it frankly isn’t that great of a display. (The screen is lovely, but the enclosure is garbage. I’m currently rocking LG's similar 21.5” 4K display, which is nice, but cramped. Its enclosure is also garbage.)

This all causes a problem: currently, there is no good way to live a single-machine lifestyle. Back in 2012, you could buy a quad-core 15” MacBook Pro and a top-of-the-line display for a few grand. That was a great setup: you got an excellent, fast machine with a great (Retina) display, and a nice way to get work done at a desk, all without the hassle of syncing files across machines.

There isn’t a great way to do that today. The current lineup of MacBook Pros are largely lacking (thanks mostly to the keyboard), and there are no great low-end external monitors. Most professionals who can afford it will likely end up with a desktop in their production environment and a laptop on the go. In between, you’ll be syncing everything between a combination of Dropbox/iCloud/OneDrive, Git, and external disks (hello again, Lightroom). It’s not ideal.

We always say things were simpler back in the old days, but 2012 wasn’t that long ago, and frankly, things were simpler then.

Technology Tools

Adobe reveals Photoshop for iPad (and other goodies)

October 15 2018

A couple months ago, some folks at Adobe admitted to some major news publications that they were working on Photoshop for iPad. Today, they formally revealed it at Adobe MAX, and The Verge got a hands-on look at the app in action.

I’m a Creative Cloud subscriber because, well, I run a design studio for a living. But Photoshop is perhaps my least important CC app. (InDesign is king, if you’re wondering — nothing else comes close.)

For somebody like me, this app is going to hit the perfect sweet spot. Everything I need to touch up photos on the go, hopefully with the same Export to Web feature that I love on the desktop.

Ironically, if you live in Photoshop (like many designers I know), then it sounds like the iPad version won’t be for you. At least, not right away. Adobe is stripping away a ton of features that will make the app less useful (keyboard shortcuts, for example).

But in the meantime, this is a pretty serious win for creative professionals on the iPad. I’m holding out for InDesign next. (But I know I’m going to have to wait for Illustrator, Premiere, and probably After Effects first.)

Some other news that will change my life in some meaningful ways:

  • Typekit is now Adobe Fonts (and every font is available for unlimited desktop syncing now!). The new website feels slower than Typekit to me, but it’s also a little less quirky, which is nice.
  • Adobe XD’s first plug-in integrations are now available, drag gestures and linked symbols (finally) are built in, and the app is getting some great Illustrator and After Effects integrations. I try XD every six months or so to see if it can release Sketch. This update could put it over the edge for me.
  • There’s a new properties panel in InDesign that looks amazing. True story: I have multiple custom views in InDesign. I switch between them based on the amount of screen real estate I have. I’m hoping this makes that process less cumbersome for me. (Plus, there’s content-aware fill, which looks very neat.)
  • PhotoShop CC finally uses the same Undo keyboard shortcuts as literally everything else on my Mac. You can also double-click to edit text instead of switching to the type tool, which should have happened many, many moons ago.

All in all, these are great updates. Congratulations to the Adobe team for making their suite of products even better, and making my job easier!

Tools

The best laptop ever made →

November 14 2017

From Marco Arment’s blog, writing about the 15” 2012-2015 MacBook Pros:

It was the debut of high-DPI Macs, starting down the long road (which we still haven’t finished) to an all-Retina lineup. And with all-SSD storage, quad-core i7 processors, and a healthy amount of RAM all standard, every configuration was fast, capable, and pleasant to use.

At its introduction, it was criticized only for ditching the optical drive and Ethernet port, but these were defensible, well-timed removals: neither could’ve even come close to physically fitting in the new design, very few MacBook Pro users were still using either on a regular basis, and almost none of us needed to buy external optical drives or Ethernet adapters to fit the new laptop into our lives. In exchange for those removals, we got substantial reductions in thickness and weight, and a huge new battery.

There were no other downsides. Everything else about this machine was an upgrade: thinner, lighter, faster, better battery life, quieter fans, better speakers, better microphones, a second Thunderbolt port, and a convenient new HDMI port.

Two thoughts.

First, this is a brilliant essay, and a year in to using my 13” MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, I almost entirely agree.

The Touch Bar is a bad idea, poorly implemented. I’m almost certain it won’t make it to the desktop line.

The new keyboard feels wonderful to me, but I completely understand why many people say it’s a bad keyboard. It’s too opinionated. I’d be happier if it had a bit more travel, too.

I miss all the ports. Basically, I want the old machine with Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports where the Thunderbolt 2 ones were before. That was a great port arrangement and layout.

I do, however, strongly disagree with him about the trackpad. Using the old models makes my fingers feel cramped. That was a good move, in retrospect.

Finally, my second thought: Marco’s post felt like something Stephen Hackett would write.

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The New MacBook Pro Keyboard Is Ruining Our Lives

October 17 2017

Casey Johnston has an article at The Outline about how bad the MacBook Pro keyboard is, which is an issue that has plagued many people I know — including myself.

In March of this year, a scant five months after I bought my 2016 13” MacBook Pro With Touch Bar (Apple could stand to shorten the name too), my space bar got stuck.

At first, I thought it was me. In my ten+ years of owning Apple equipment, I couldn’t accept that the fault was the laptop. I actively thought I was hitting the key wrong. This was before there was a ton of hubbub about these keyboards, or at least before I was aware of the hubbub.

About a week after I first noticed the issue, it was to the point where the space bar never worked. No matter how I hit it. So I brought it to an Apple Store tout suite. First, they told me I was hitting it wrong.

I’m not joking. The Apple Store Genius told me I was typing wrong.

Then, after trying it himself, he agreed this was a real problem. He set out to fix the issue, and told me they were going to replace the space bar on my keyboard.

He came out about an hour later and told me the problem was solved, and that they had removed and replaced the space bar. There was a piece of dust, I was told, and they had removed it. This "fixed" my issue, he claimed.

But the keyboard still didn’t work.

I tested it before I left the store, and promptly returned the laptop to the Genius’ hands. First, he assured me (again) that I was typing wrong. Then, he tried it, and agreed there was still a problem.

Keep in mind, this was the same Genius who helped me before.

He took my laptop away and told me they’d “let me know” when they identified the issue. I was told they’d keep my computer overnight to run some diagnostics and take a look at it, since they had “never encountered” this issue before.

Twenty-four hours later, they called me mid-afternoon to ask if I had a recent backup of my hard drive. They took my space bar off, but they couldn’t get the space bar back on because they key had snapped. So they needed to replace the entire bottom case on my laptop, and that part order and replacement would take three days or less. They were going to rush it because they knew my business relied on my laptop. It should go fine, they said, but they wanted to make sure I had a backup in case something happened.

Two days and twenty-three hours later, they called me with good news and bad news. The good news was that my part had arrived. The bad news was that the keyboard was somehow associated with the Touch Bar, and the connection there had gone faulty, which meant they had to replace the Touch Bar. They said that all of my keys were mis-aligned, because the keyboard wasn’t properly set in the factory to begin with, and that was when the problem started. I was lucky to have made it five months into my usage.

But Touch ID is connected to the Touch Bar, so they had to replace that too. And Touch ID is connected to the logic board, so that was getting replaced. And the hard drive and the RAM were both soldered to the logic board, so…

Well, you get the picture.

Then, instead of replacing the laptop, which would have made more sense at that point, they replaced the logic board, SSD, RAM, Touch Bar with Touch ID, and external casing on my MacBook Pro. I got it back eight days after I handed it to the Genius Bar.

Just the other day, I realized that my warranty was coming up to a close on this MacBook Pro. I’m approaching my first full year of ownership. So I spent $375 (Canadian), including taxes, on AppleCare for my $3,000 laptop. Because for the first time since I started buying Apple products, I absolutely do not trust this machine.

But it’s my daily driver. What can I do?

I really like typing on this keyboard, but I hate this keyboard.

Tools

Learn Ulysses →

September 1 2017

After going through The Sweet Setup’s new Learn Ulysses Course twice, I’ve mulled it over and moved all my writing to Ulysses. Ulysses is a delightful plain text editor with its own built in library for your documents. It’s probably the best writing app for macOS and iOS. For professional writers and busy people alike, it’s well worth the coin.

I’ve been using Ulysses for just shy of a year now. I’m the sort of person that likes instruction manuals, so I read through all the support docs shortly after I got the app. I think of myself as a power user.

But this new course from The Sweet Setup (an awesome website if, if they’re new to you) is something else entirely. Whether you’re new to the app or a complete expert, you'll learn something from their brief lessons. I still learned a lot from the course — particularly about searching for files and keywords across all your documents.

The course was so useful that it helped me re-organize my entire writing system and structure. Previously, some of my writing was in Apple’s Notes app, some was in OmniOutliner, and some was in Ulysses. All these apps are great, but there are serious productivity benefits to having all your writing in one place.

Now, using the wealth of keyboard shortcuts and speedy tricks I learned from Learn Ulysses, I’ve migrated everything into Ulysses. This move's completely removed the cruft from my setup.

Finally, the course has been invaluable in creating a perfect writing environment. I knew all about Ulysses’ customizable themes, but the Learn Ulysses course taught me how to enhance custom themes with settings I didn’t know existed in the app.

After some minor tweaking to my setup, I’m able to combine the environments of my two all-time favourite writing apps: Bear and iA Writer. I’ve never been more productive in a writing app before.

Learn Ulysses transformed its titular app from a utility to a dream workstation. The app looks exactly how I want it to look, and the course made me more productive than I've ever been in a text editor.

I couldn’t be happier with both Ulysses the app and Learn Ulysses, the course. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend both. It’s among the best business investments I’ve made all year.

Tools

Project Hubs: The Best Way to Keep Clients Up to Date

August 30 2017

If you work in a services business, you know how difficult it can be to communicate with clients. They need to know what’s going on, but email is the actual worst. Searching through email is slow. Email makes it too hard to view a list of received deliverables in reverse chronological order. This is especially true if you’re working on the project with a team of people.

I’ve tried every collaboration tool out there to fix this. They’re probably all tools you know, and maybe even use already. I’ve tried Slack, Asana, and even Kanban tools like Trello. I’d create projects or teams for each client in the system, and invite them in to collaborate with me.

The closest I’ve come to success is Basecamp, which all my clients at least like. And while all of these remain exceptional tools, none of them are the right tool for the job.

The thing is, collaboration tools require buy-in from entire organizations if they’re going to be useful. Communication tools are great for service providers like you and me, but we can’t push those apps on our clients and expect the same results.

But today, after years of experimenting, I think I've got it. I finally have what might be the best way to keep your clients up to date.

Over the past few days, I’ve been carefully considering Project Hubs, originally coined such by Brad Frost. The trick with a Project Hub is that they remove collaboration completely, and treat projects as timelines. As soon as you see what a Project Hub looks like, you get it. It just makes sense.

This is Brad’s demo Project Hub. For clients, this is a godsend. And for people like me, it’s easy to keep it updated. It’s just another part of process.

Brad explains in a little more depth why this works in his blog post, but simply put: using consistent URLs for all your work means that clients know exactly where to go to find the latest version of that thing you’re making for them. No need to create multiple versions — just update your single “source of truth”. If they need the latest design file, they can just visit www.projecthub.yourcompanyname.com/web-design-mockup and get the latest version there — every time.

I started whipping up Project Hubs for my clients this morning, and I’m excited about keeping them more closely updated. If you’re of a technical leaning, you can download the sample project on GitHub and install it on the server of your choice.

If you work in client services and want to integrate something like this into your website, get in touch and I'll see if I can lend you a hand.

Tools

How and Why I Use OmniFocus to Manage My Life

April 21 2017

For years, I’ve gone back and forth from OmniFocus to other task management systems. I’ve tried so many of them: Things, Todoist, Wunderlist, Basecamp, Reminders, Asana, 2do — I’m sure I’m forgetting a few. I’ve never lasted more than a month or two with any of these before coming back to OmniFocus.

I have a love/hate relationship with OmniFocus. (I once called OmniFocus “expensive” and “dystopian” on my personal blog, which may have been a bit melodramatic.)

But this app is honestly the only task management system that lets me work the way my brain works.

I’ve spent the past year going back and forth between all these systems, and after purchasing it three or four years ago (whenever version 2 came out), I’ve come full circle to embracing OmniFocus again. I’ve made a lot of notes over the past year about how I work and why OmniFocus works for me.

If you’ve been struggling to embrace a digital task management system, or trying to figure out what app you should use, then I hope this can help you.

Outlines of Tasks

First of all: like many creative types / coders that I know, I tend to think in outlines. Give me the back of a napkin and I’m writing a list out on it. OmniFocus is the only todo app that feels like an outlining app. (Obviously, that’s because OmniFocus shares heritage with OmniOutliner — another app I’m a huge fan of.)

So every day, when I’m doing a bit of a brain or idea dump, I can write it exactly how I would an outline. (It’s even better once you have the keyboard shortcuts memorized.)

But I know I’m not using OmniFocus right. I don’t use Reviews (well, not often). I don’t know use Contexts at all (seriously, not even a little). But I use Projects religiously.

I’ve organized my life into folders of projects in OmniFocus. Each folder includes a project called Miscellaneous, which I use to dump individual tasks that don’t belong to a larger project, but still need to be filed in the right place.

I have a folder for my studio, a folder for my church volunteering projects, and a folder for each client and product that I cater to. When a task gets added, assuming there’s a project or client related to it, the task immediately gets dumped in the proper spot.

I know what you’re thinking: “This sounds like a ton of work. I don’t want to think this hard.”

But it’s really not. It works just like an outline. Here’s a bullet list to show off (in brief) what a typical list within folders might look like.

  • My Studio Projects
    • Website Update
      • Write New Copy
      • Get a Headshot
  • Acme Corporation Projects
    • Brand Package
      • Create logo
      • Design system
      • Put system into a beautiful book
      • Collaborate with an awesome A+ printer to get the book printed
    • Website Update (Project Two)
      • Design
      • Development
      • Kick-Butt Copywriting

Etc, etc.

It’s not hard. It’s sensible — the exact same way you’d write it down on the back of the napkin.

Deferred Projects

To manage the bloat of projects, I also set up a ton of deferred start dates, which often repeat annually for clients on retainers. I can plan out a client’s entire year with them, and then start nudging them the day a project is set to start.

This has the side benefit of hiding any “inactive” project from my regular OmniFocus views. So there’s not too much clutter. Just enough to get a birds’ eye view.

Managing It All With Perspectives

All of this sounds really hard to manage, I know. I’ve got about 50 active projects going on at any given time.

This is where a task management system usually falls apart: what happens when you have hundreds and hundreds of items in it?

Most people start using Contexts at this point. I really don’t understand Contexts. I don’t get tags either. These systems don’t work the way my brain works. They give me headaches.

So here’s what I did.

I bought the Pro edition of OmniFocus, so I could set up custom perspectives. Perspectives are, for me, a bit of a lifesaver. They let me focus on individual projects at a time, instead of the full monte. (Hence the “Focus” in OmniFocus.)

I have two perspectives I use religiously.

How I set up my Doing view in OmniFocus.

One is called “Doing”. I manually select the projects that I must make progress on every day right now, and have only those listed in this perspective. With one click, I can go to the perspective, see a quick list of the projects I should focus on, and check on the related tasks for each project.

How I set up my Today view in OmniFocus.

The other perspective is called “Today”. It also focused on a project, but this project is just a single action list called “Today”. Every morning, I delete everything in the list and write out only what needs to be accomplished that day. I don’t assign a due date or anything — I only use due dates if my life depends on it — but I start working through “Today” every time I finish in my Forecast.

My Key Principle: You Should Manually Curate Your Daily Tasks

Most hardcore OmniFocus people have a Today view in OmniFocus. The problem is, that Today view is usually based on some mixture of defer dates, due dates, and flagged tasks. I can’t have an entirely automated system like that; I need to manually curate my daily tasks.

I’ve tried, and tried, and tried to set up so many similar lists in any other app, but it never works for me. OmniFocus is the only app that bends to my will. (Things comes close, but their app is too inflexible to be of any real use for people with a million projects and areas of responsibilities.)

This workflow works if you’re the sort of person that dumps everything you need to do into your phone, but still writes out a quick list on paper every morning. I’ve just elected to make the whole thing digital.

If I’m being completely honest: you could probably make a compromised version of this system on anybody’s platform. But I don’t think anybody else makes it as easy to do what you want.

This isn’t a sales pitch. I get 0% of the money from doing this. I’m just finally happy with my system. If you want to try it out, you can check out OmniFocus on OmniGroup’s website.

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