Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Presents in the Post

Look what arrived this week! My present in the post, from Raj at Presents in the Post.

There were a few little glitches and delays with the postage but my present finally arrived and I absolutely love my napkin surprise by 'handmade by me'! It came cutely wrapped, with a gorgeously illustrated note and business card from Presents in the Post.

What Presents in the Post does is send out surprise gifts every month. So you can order either a once off or gifts for the next 3 or 6 months, and something beautiful will make it's way to your postbox. Oh the anticipation! The gifts, specially sourced and selected by Raj, are locally made by SA designers and artists - they are unique, fun, artsy, or useful little items. You choose whether you want a present for a boy or a girl, and then pick your favourite image from that month's theme (giving a nudge in the right direction) - and Raj does the rest.

What a fun way to spoil yourself, or take the agony out of finding and choosing a gift for a friend.

They also have an online shop so you don't have to feel like you've missed the boat on a great designer/gift from a few month's back.

Ten points for a genius idea, Raj!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


My new car's name is Fernando - he came preloaded with an ABBA cd.

He looks like this.

I like him.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Aquarelle Pencils

I tried out some aquarelle pencils today with another sketch for the What I Wore Today flickr group.  I bought the pencils about a year ago but hadn't used them until now. Been years since I used coloured pencils, not to mention watercolours! They're actually pretty cool. And so easy and convenient. Unlike tubes of paint.

It got a bit messy after adding water (below), but I like the effect.

I've never been great at using watercolour paint. They require a bit too much forethought and planning as you can't 'paint over' something quite as easily as you can with acrylics or oils, so it's not easy to cover up mistakes. I have so much respect for true watercolor artists. They really do have skills and a certain patience that I think I lack. You have to keep your highlights clean and very light from the start. You have to know where you are going.

I found these pencils quite easy to work with though.  I started with a black ball point pen and then layered the colour over. Then I wet the colours with a small brush - which took away a bit of the intensity - so then I coloured into the damp paper with the pencils again to get the richness back. I personally never liked how soft the tones were when I used watercolour paints and struggled to get my shadows dark enough and colours bright enough to make me happy. I think this method with the black pen and aquarelle pencils has some potential and is a nice compromise.

Monday, April 8, 2013

My new Dell laptop and Windows 8. So far.

So after my old Acer finally died, I set out in search of a shiny new laptop. Now firstly let me say that finding a 17 inch laptop is not nearly as easy as it used to be 4 or 5 years ago. Laptops look to be getting smaller, while desktop displays get bigger... but for those of us who need to be mobile, don't want both a desktop AND a laptop, and also need a big screen in order to design properly, the 17 inch is, in my opinion, still the best option. Albeit a pricey one.

After spending a full day trekking through every computer store in Durban (PC Zone weirdly had no laptops at all!), I found only two 17 inch laptops within my budget, but neither of them were that great. They were both running on the i15 processor thingie (which apparently is less awesome than the newer i17) , the graphics cards and resolutions were average, and they were all plastic and no soul. So in the end, and after a bit of self-justifying, I more or less doubled my budget in order to afford the next best thing.
The Dell inspiron 17R (5721) i17.

Now after spending half of what my car is worth on a little portable computer, I was kind of expecting... stuff to work. But no. Turns out almost nothing works... with Windows 8. Yet. My new Vodacom USB modem being one device that fails miserably. And my new Dell laptop, being the other. Hmpf.

So, after just day 3 of owning the new bank-breaker, here are some of the things that have raised my blood pressure a little already:

1. The Dell Backup and Recovery App just plain does not work. When you buy the machine you are told to create your recovery disk before you do anything else. This basically creates a mirror image of your system, with all it's factory setting, so that you can restore it as new should something go horribly wrong. The app writes the first disk successfully and then just kicks out the second disk without telling you anything more. Some Googling revealed it to be a known Dell issue, without solution, and with many irate customers. So I got on the phone to Dell support and after nearly an hour on the phone, they told me it is a known issue with Windows 8 and there is no solution as yet (duh, I already knew that) but that they will post me the Recovery disks.  In other words, they have not updated/tested/fixed their Dell app in order for it to be compatible with the very operating system that they are selling the machine (and the app) with. Disappointing.

This app, she is broken. Phone Dell and ask them to send you the recovery disks.

2. Windows 8 is a pain in the butt. Nuff said.  No really, it requires a ton of customisation to be even remotely efficient. Why did they put this on my machine?! It breaks everything, and it sucks. And every time I try to use my scroll bar, the 'charms' jump out at me instead. More like curses than charms. Can I have Windows 7 rather? Or even XP will do nicely please.

I will probably get used to Windows 8 and eat my words one day, but right now it is wasting my time and making me a little angry.

Windows 8 Start page which replaces your old Start menu. This is mine after a  lot
of customisation. All the default crap has been moved off-screen to the right. Note the self-made Shutdown button (top left) that needs to be added if you want to shutdown with any ease. Don't get me started on the dismal  task bar. (The Search function in is quite cool though. You just type anywhere on this page and it finds stuff.)

3. The trackpad is... um... less than ideal. The minute you try to use any Adobe programs such as Illustrator or Photoshop (which is the whole reason you spent so much money in the first place) you will find that your space bar shortcut to grab and move the page around, does not work. This is apparently because you are pressing your space bar and using your trackpad at the same time, and there is a default setting in a bunch of Dell laptops that automatically disables the trackpad when using any keys... ostensibly so that your palm does not hit the pad and move things around while you are typing.

So you need to go and disable this in order to use your Adobe software properly (ie, uncheck "switch palm rejection on" in your touch pad settings) . But wait, disabling this does not work unless you first download and installed the new Synaptic drivers for Windows 8 and spend another half an hour on the phone with Dell support, who occasionally cut you off so you have to call back and start all over again. FYI, gamers will also need to disable this default setting or they wont be able to play their games properly either.

1. Install the latest Synaptic Touchpad Driver from Dell website, 2. On the Start page, type "Mouse" > Open "Mouse" > Click on "Dell touchpad" tab > Click on "Click to change Dell Touchpad settings > Uncheck "Palm Rejection Turn On"

Now, once that works as it should, (Yay!) you will find that whenever you type anything (like this blog post for instance) you will quite regularly find yourself typing in random places in your text midway between sentences from two paragraphs up; because now when you palm touches the trackpad the curser jumps all over the place! Thus the default setting which you just unchecked. It seems to me to be poor design and positioning of the trackpad, as I have never ever had problems with my palm moving the cursor while I am typing on any other machine, ever. I am hoping it will be a case of subconsciously learning, over time, through trial and error, where/how to keep my palm away from the trackpad while typing. Humans are smart like that.

What else?

Well, this isn't really a Dell or Windows 8 fault, but still worth mentioning:

A higher resolution screen will make everything smaller. I am embarrassed to admit that I did not think this through beforehand and was somewhat surprised and put out when I found that every web page was about half the size of 'normal' and that text and icons are now teeny tiny everywhere I look. Instead, I thought that a higher resolution screen would be better for my ever diminishing eyesight. Wrong.

And this is why:
Resolution is pixel dependent. So a 17 inch screen with a higher resolution will have more pixels fitted into that screen than a lower resolution 17 inch screen which has less pixels in the same amount of space. And since the screens are the same physical size, the greater number of pixels in the high res screen need to be smaller in order to fit more of them in. Huh? Yes, just like that. Higher resolution equals more and smaller pixels on an identical size screen.

Ok, now think of an image which is 50x50 pixels in size. On the higher resolution screen the image must appear smaller as the pixels are smaller! Penny drops. The same applies to text which is defined by pixel size. Higher resolution equals more and smaller pixels on an identical size screen and thus content with specific pixel dimensions will look smaller.

It's obvious when you think about it, but in reality, how does a higher resolution then help me? What's the point? Well, I would say, it helps when you are designing with vector artwork (pixel independent), or watching high def videos, or playing fancy video games, or editing high res photos. Then things look fantastic.  And if you have great eyesight and can easily read the smaller text, the you have loads more screen real estate at your disposal, so you can now see 200 gmail messages at  once instead of just 100, and when using your design software you have loads of space for the tools and palettes, or even a whole other window of stuff going on next to what you are working on. But if you don't have great eyesight, you're screwed!

No actually you're not.

There is a way around it. Simply change the zoom level of your browser like this. Easy peasy. Just a bunch more customisation, loads of Googling and a little cursing.

Before:  at 100% zoom. tiny web page.

After:  set at 125% zoom. looks like 'normal' size web page now.

It may not sound like it, but  I do in fact like my new machine. I like the round corners and sturdy metallic housing, I like the quiet hum of the fan that doesn't sound like it's trying to escape and fly away, I like that it reboots really quickly, and I like that Dell support is just a phone call away and will rock up at my door tomorrow if they need to. I like that my screen is non-reflective and I can now meet client's at an outdoor coffee shop and we'll still be able to see their website as the sun sets behind us. I like that the machine doesn't get scorching hot and roast my lap. I like that the battery lasts longer than expected, and I like that the colour contrast is fantastic; you can actually see the difference between a 78% and an 80%  intensity of colour swatch. I like that I have a massive 1TB hard drive and 8GB RAM (take that Indesign!). And I like that this thing is new. New stuff is always cool.

A few days after writing this post the fan suddenly got very noisy and very obviously had a problem. I called Dell Support again and was told to download this BIOS update:  The fan quietened down slightly after running it, but was still making a scratchy/scrapy noise and was still loud, so they sent out a technician to install a new fan. In my 10 day old laptop.

Turns out there was a small piece of paper from the factory which was caught in the fan.

Long story short, after new fan installed and BIOS updated the fan is much much quieter. Almost inaudible in fact. Quieter than when I first turned the machine on, before the fan got loud. It's lovely. So although there was in fact a fault with my machine, the BIOS update is necessary as well and I would recommend you install it asap if you have the same laptop.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

What to back up, when and where

If you think backing up your files once a month is enough, you are mistaken. As luck would have it, my old laptop crashed almost a month to the day after doing my last semi-complete backup (which was mainly client files and photos). Potentially losing a full month's work is horrifying. My last full backup of everything was a good few month's before that so I am still in a mild state of panic trying to figure out what I have and haven't lost.

Thankfully I am able to find most of the most important stuff in various places - my web project files are all uploaded to their remote servers so they are easy enough to download, my most recent illustration project files are all in my Dropbox folder in vector format (luckily the client had requested editable AI files or all would be lost!), my accounting document can be re-updated by going through my bank statements again, recent invoices and quotes can be salvaged from my gmail messages to clients, and of course, since I use gmail, I have not lost any mails. I used to keep an "ideas" folder which I would have been really sad to lose especially after some of the brilliant brainstorming I have been doing in the last few weeks... But recently I started pinning visual ideas to a hidden folder in Pinterest, some of the more wordy stuff has been saved to Evernote, and I've added lists of to-do ideas to Workflowy.

So on the whole, apart from the schlep of it all, I am ok on the most important stuff.

Except for two or three things I overlooked....

1. My fonts!! I can't believe I made this mistake again! The last time I backed up my fonts folder was months ago! And just the other day I spent a good few hours scouring the net for some fabulous free fonts, downloading and installing them; and even made a little note on my to do list to back them up. I'm very upset about losing these and having to start over. And I'm pretty sure I'm going to run into a bunch of design files down the line with the dreaded "Missing Font" message popping up all over the place. Losing fonts is a huge issue for designers. If you don't back them up, you will deeply regret it.

2. My schedule. I use a simple excel spreadsheet, saved to my desktop, and make changes to it daily, so losing a month's worth of planning is really not great. Actually it turns out I didn't back up my desktop. So it is all gone.

3. All the programs I downloaded/installed from the internet eg Filezilla, WAMP, Skype, and so on. These, of course, can be downloaded again but this means paying for the (slow and expansive) bandwidth again, and wasting a huge amount of time.

A few things that saved me:

1. - I am in love with this little list maker. If you haven't tried it yet, you should. It is great for organising to-do lists and managing projects and ideas so you don't forget anything, also good for shopping lists! And it's all on-line so you can access it anywhere and more importantly, never lose it! The design is simple, uncluttered and to the point. I have Workflowy saved as my Chrome home-page.

2. Dropbox - Recent Illustrator files I sent to clients for proofing are still there... yay!

3. My Google Account - somewhere,somehow, with always logging in to Google, my browser history / Chrome preferences have been saved and all is as it should be after installing Chrome on my new laptop. I actually didn't know about this, so it was a pleasant surprise.

4. Pinterest - my visual inspiration board, ideas, and recipes are all in tact!

5. - I save a bunch of random stuff to Evernote. Articles that I think I will need to refer back to at some point, ideas, photos of business cards that get handed to me (so I can throw them away), stuff like that...

6. I haven't deleted images off my camera in a while so the latest pics are all still there. Phew.

In addition to making use of our friends above, here is a little list of what to remember to back up and some tips:

1. My documents folder (assuming this is where everyone keeps all their stuff)

2. Windows/fonts (This is important for designers because we install custom fonts - if you are not a designer you probably don't need to worry about this)

3. Program Files/WAMP/www
If you use WAMP or similar for web development, bear in mind that backing up the www files is not enough, you will have to do database dumps of all your project databases as well. I would say, do this and save the .sql file in the relevant project folder in www, immediately after making any significant changes to a database or table. I only really use WAMP at the beginning of some projects as a testing server, but I don't like the idea of losing entire database structures, so I think I will try steer clear of using WAMP in future and rather test directly on the remote server.

4. Program files/installed_programs
Create a folder called installed_programs in your Program Files folder and save all the .exe files / programs you download from the internet there, then you have one easy file for future use. It will save time and mega megabytes. Wishing I had done that.

5. Documents and Settings/Desktop
Don't forget to back up the desktop. Sometimes the files there are not saved anywhere else.

6. Favourites (if you use this)

7. Mail, contacts, calendar (if you're not using something like Gmail where everything will still be available when your computer goes down)

8. Pictures
Don't delete pictures off your camera until after they have been backed up off your computer. Always keep photos in at least two places eg. camera and laptop, laptop and external drive, laptop and flickr, etc. Preferable three.

9. Save and sync all important documents that you work with daily 
For me these will be things like accounting spreadsheets, quotes, invoices; and my schedule spreadsheet. Save these to "the cloud". In other words, to a remote server, using something like Windows Skydrive, Google docs, Dropbox; and make sure it is set up to sync automatically after you make any changes. This is great for Word and Excel docs which are relatively small in size but not so great for large design files and photos if you live somewhre like South Africa where bandwidth is ridiculously expensive and slow at times. Large files will need to be backed up on an external hard drive on a regular and weekly basis. Or at the end of a hugely productive design day.

10. Dreamweaver Site Definitions
A big mission for me is having to set up all my clients' site definiteions (remote access/ftp details) in Dreamweaver again. As it turns out, this stuff can be exported! Like this. I wish I had known that before, but alas. In future, every time I add a new site, I will export and save the site definition. If you save them all into the same folder, they can be easily imported back in, in just one click.

11. Serial numbers and passwords
Although I am not entirely comfortable with saving passwords on a remote server, it is handy to have them all in one place where you can access them from anywhere. A little file saved to Dropbox, Google Docs, Skydrive or Evernote is not a bad idea; but don't go labeling it "passwords" or anything obvious, and be as cryptic as possible i.e. try to avoid typing the actual password or username but rather give yourself some sort of clue or reminder. Serial numbers for software you have bought are important to keep as well. Put them all on one page. Also a good idea, is to save a photo/scan of your ID book and Passport, medical aid details, and other very important docs, to a secure location. If you save them to a remote server you will be thankful that you can access them when your passport goes missing during your trip to Istanbul.

So in summary:

1. At the end of each week, back up all the folders in the list above to an external drive.
Set your computer/backup software to remind you when it is time, and set it to back up all the specific folders above (not just the default ones). So then it's just a case of plugging in your external drive every Friday morning, and clicking start while you have your cup of coffee.

2. Set up syncing of important documents and docs you update daily, to a remote server/app like Dropbox, Google Docs, Windows Skydrive.

3. It is not unreasonable to back up your projects at the end of every, very productive day; especially if your computer is behaving badly and being held together by duct tape (note to self).

And if you are a web developer:
4. Do a database dump as soon as you make any changes to a WAMP database.

5. Export Dreamweaver site definitions every time you add a new site.

Finally, always keep your external drive in a safe place, preferably not next to your PC! If you have a house robbery, all this is pointless if they take your computer AND your backups!!

And if you have any better or more streamlined suggestions, or if I've forgotten something important that also needs backing up, please feel free to point it out in the comments or drop me a mail. :-)