writegeek

write with a W, geek like a G


Slick, sleek & slimy

I have fond mem­o­ries, though my cho­les­terol level does not, of eat­ing at D’Best Sand­wich Shop in Boca Raton. It’s been a few years, but as I  recently munched on a Miami Cuban-style cheeses­teak1 my mind started wan­der­ing and I got to won­der­ing if D’Best still existed. As I went look­ing for their web­site, I recalled a few of their regional twists on the cheeses­teak, like the New York style, a New Jer­sey style… not to men­tion their incred­i­ble non-steak explo­sion of an entire Thanks­giv­ing meal directly onto a bun (D’Pilgrim).

D’Best still exists, alright… but I was truly unpre­pared for what I found.

You see, back when I’d visit, D’Best-the-subshop was a place you’d leave coated with a thin layer of grill grease. Had to wait in line? You’re wash­ing your hair tonight. The place was by no means messy, but it had a cer­tain unfin­ished qual­ity to it… def­i­nitely the kind of place where the food mat­ters more than the brand­ing. I’d describe it as feel­ing some­how hon­est… com­pletely lack­ing in pre­tense. Kind of blue col­lar? Yeah, I guess.

You can prob­a­bly tell why I was expect­ing the web­site to be endear­ingly ter­ri­ble. I was ready for a lit­tle Comic Sans, an “under con­struc­tion” GIF, and a scanned paper menu — as a multi-megabyte bitmap, of course. That would seem nor­mal. Kind of quaint.

D’Best-the-website, how­ever, looks very pro­fes­sional. It’s fast, designed to mod­ern stan­dards, has eye-pleasing amounts of white­space — oh, for fuck’s sake, it’s respon­sive — and is even served over HTTPS. Oh, and did I men­tion that it’s com­pletely lack­ing in char­ac­ter? It feels like it should belong to… I don’t know, L’Best Artisi­nal Panini Bistro.2

And it very well could.

But what really raised an eye­brow was this line:

We have an unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to fla­vor. Con­nect with us and let us know how we are doing.

And also, this one:

We never stop short of a culi­nary expe­ri­ence you’re sure to enjoy.

D’Best’s fla­vor may not waver, but you’d never hear that out of their mouths. Their sand­wiches may be deli­cious, but a “culi­nary expe­ri­ence” they are not. This is a place where the meat gets grilled by guys in foot­ball jer­seys, back­wards base­ball caps and maybe a tat­too or two.

Some­thing was rot­ten in the state of Boca, so I plugged the above phrases into a search engine. And then I did one of these. It turns out there are at least 80,000 restau­rants whose web­sites promise the same “unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to fla­vor,” and look more-or-less exactly the same as D’Best’s.

All of these, includ­ing D’Best and Hick­ory Hut St. Paul, say the’re “Pow­ered by Eat­Street,” a website-in-a-box ser­vice for restau­rants. Eat­Street seems to host these sites, and pro­vides them with a generic design tem­plate as well. All of these dif­fer­ent restau­rants, from all over the coun­try, basi­cally end up with the exact same web­site, with the exact same mes­sag­ing, except for a few small tweaks.

This feels a lit­tle slimy on the sur­face, but is there any­thing wrong with it? After all, restau­rants’ web­sites are of truly hyper­local inter­est. I mean, nobody in DeKalb, Illi­nois is look­ing for D’Best. They’re more inter­ested in The Hud­dle Amer­i­can Food… which has the exact same web­site as D’Best. Sigh.

In the inter­est of being hon­est with myself, I tried to explore just which part of me was so offended by this. Was I offended as a food per­son? As a past D’Best devo­tee? Or as a copy­writer who can’t help but see this as a busi­ness get­ting by with­out need­ing the ser­vices of myself or some­one like me?

To reach the answer, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the owner of D’Best, and I real­ized that, you know, it must have been a whole lot nicer to run not just restau­rants, but most kinds of local busi­nesses before the Inter­net. Some per­son who really needs to be wor­ry­ing about keep­ing rats out of the kitchen doesn’t want to think about about build­ing and secur­ing a web­site, plus deal­ing with all the Inter­net necessary-evils (Yelp, Google, Face­book, OpenTable, Square, Foursquare, etc.) that sup­pos­edly exist to bring them cus­tomers, but instead use their stature to inter­me­di­ate the cus­tomer rela­tion­ship, and extract a recur­ring fee for doing so for the rest of for­ever. (Actu­ally, a few of those com­pa­nies would love it if D’Best decided to give up on run­ning a stand­alone website.)

If Eat­Street can keep a sim­ple site up and run­ning smoothly, plus keep it more secure than the prover­bial site-by-nephew, is that really such a bad thing? After all, a few decades in, the Inter­net is still not made for nor­mal peo­ple; there’s just too much that can go wrong if one doesn’t have the spe­cial­ized knowl­edge to do tech­ni­cal stuff prop­erly. There’s def­i­nitely value in sim­pli­fy­ing things for a nor­mal per­son who just want to run their damn busi­nesses. So even if Eat­Street is yet another friendly inter­me­di­ary, thanks to them one can order a D’Best Philly style online — con­sider my mind blown. Could that func­tion­al­ity exist with­out some cen­tral­ized ser­vice keep­ing the Inter­net gears run­ning smoothly in the back­ground, han­dling the credit cards and tak­ing a cut?

For all the upside they deliver in func­tion­al­ity and secu­rity, how­ever, Eat­Sreet sure has their ten­drils into D’Best in an inadvisably-deep man­ner — a quick whois check shows that Eat­Street actu­ally owns D’Best’s domain name. Or should I say their new domain name. I found this other domain that still con­tains an older D’Best web­site. While this site is still slicker than it should be — remem­ber, my cheeses­teak place’s site should look a lit­tle like their paper menus, minus the grease stains — this site’s a lot closer to what I would expect. There are some typos. It’s got a page where you can meet the team. It has a freakin’ FAQ page where they tell you how to reheat a cheeses­teak (which, by the way, they say you shouldn’t do).

This Inter­net archae­o­log­i­cal find is a sign that some­one once cared about and hand-crafted D’Best’s web pres­ence… but at some point said “fuck it, this Eat­Street thing doesn’t make me think.” Thanks to their scale, Eat­Street can cen­tral­ize best prac­tices for all of their cus­tomers, but they can’t cen­tral­ize the déclassé char­ac­ter, the local fla­vor, the unique greasy fin­ger­prints that inevitably end up on the web­site when it’s made by the owner’s prover­bial teenage nephew.3

While those at the helm of D’Best can do what they think works for them, it just sucks to see a place with so much fla­vor take the path lack­ing in taste. But they have cheeses­teaks to make, and as long as peo­ple keep com­ing through the door to order these greasy won­ders on bread, they don’t have any­thing to worry about.

Ulti­mately, I guess I’m just writ­ing about myself and my pref­er­ences. While you couldn’t stop me from grab­bing a cheeses­teak if I hap­pened to be in the neigh­bor­hood, from where I’m stand­ing I can’t help but see big, lazy cen­tral­iza­tion as the sworn enemy of good­ness. May I never get too big to have taste.

  1. For the curi­ous: a sin­gle slab of steak topped with swiss cheese, mayo and potato sticks — a rather unhealthy twist on the ubiq­ui­tous pan con bis­tec, and also not a cheeses­teak.
  2. A hypo­thet­i­cal restau­rant I’d also totally eat at, by the way.
  3. Just kid­ding! Kids these days don’t actu­ally know how to use com­put­ers. They’d just set up a Face­book page.

Written by Everett Guerny

September 17th, 2014 at 2:19 am

This is relevant to my interests

I just clicked my first ban­ner ad in years. It wasn’t by accident.

Dear mar­keters, this is how you do it:

wwii-fonts

No, of course I didn’t buy anything.

Written by Everett Guerny

September 13th, 2014 at 8:22 pm

Observing Design Observer’s design

Oh, good­ness. I started writ­ing this post in Jan­u­ary, and have had it basi­cally fin­ished for weeks now. I’ve been putting off actu­ally post­ing it for some time, think­ing it needs more work. But now — in fact, just three hours ago — Design Observer unveiled a redesign and made me look like some kind of jerk. Now, if that isn’t an object les­son in ship­ping

Design Observer looks dated.

The Past

DO’s header boasts proudly that it’design-observer-2s been oper­at­ing since 2003, and you can tell. Look at it with 2014 eyes and you’ll observe a non-responsive fixed-width lay­out with tiny text. Is that really a blogroll? Where are the ubiq­ui­tous social shar­ing buttons?

It’s like a time cap­sule of early-2000s blog design.

And that’s why it’s so great.

Design Observer reminds me of a lot of web­sites from the ‘00s, some of the first blog-ish things I ever read. (Like Pix­el­sur­geon! Or Design is Kinky! Or Pix­el­sur­geon!) Maybe I owe the fond­ness to my youth, and its design lim­i­ta­tions to the bad old days of prim­i­tive web browsers. Or maybe it was just Web-1.9(beta) style. To my eyes, though, the look holds up well.

The Present

The infor­ma­tion den­sity on Design Observer is amaz­ing and that prob­a­bly has a lot to do with the type­face, which is tiny by today’s stan­dards. I peeked into the HTML because I knew the type­face appealed to me, but I couldn’t quite put my fin­ger on why. IT’S 8 POINT VERDANA, you guys!1 It’s so tiny, yet so crisp and read­able. (Com­pare that to Arial, or its bla­tant rip-off Hel­vetica.2)

The site was def­i­nitely not designed with the cur­rent tablet craze in mind, and as a tablet owner who doesn’t love tablets, I like that. That said, I shud­der to think of what Design Observer must look like at unscaled ‘retina’ resolutions.

The Future

Speak­ing of the future, I fear the day I’m going to visit Design Observer and find a Medi­u­mi­fi­ca­tion has hap­pened — this has to be on their roadmap. It does seems a lit­tle strange for a design site like DO not to be fol­low­ing what are, for bet­ter or worse (Here’s my bal­lot! I vote ‘worse’!) mod­ern design con­ven­tions, which favor clumsy UI for smudgy fin­gers over — you know — the stuff that helps peo­ple do stuff.3

And once it’s gone, it’s gone. Sadly, Design Observer’s robots.txt file tells most search engine crawlers to sim­ply go away. DO specif­i­cally included a rule ban­ning the Inter­net Archive, which means the page has never been cap­tured by the Way­back Machine, the Internet’s somewhat-official time cap­sule… and never will. This makes it tough, if not impos­si­ble, to see what Design Observer looked like ten years ago, two years ago and even last week, to see how it changed with the times — or didn’t — to become what it is today.

And when this frankly won­der­ful design is replaced by some­thing “bet­ter” and “mod­ern,” it will also dis­ap­pear for­ever. Hope this helps.

  1. In col­lege, I prob­a­bly spent more time choos­ing a font for AOL Instant Mes­sen­ger than I did study­ing for some classes, and this size Ver­dana was what I’d always come back to.
  2. I kid… I own the DVD, hon­est! Now please put down those taste­ful Dieter-Rams-designed pitch­forks.
  3. I’m not against design­ing while keep­ing mobile devices in mind, but these designs almost always come with design­ers choos­ing to reduce func­tion­al­ity across all devices in the name of con­sis­tency. Hey world, news flash — you can do respon­sive design in a way that doesn’t do away with side­bars, page chrome and just gen­eral func­tion­al­ity until web­sites look like Write­Room. Just make it degrade nicely.

Written by Everett Guerny

July 1st, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Her was silly. (Not a typo.)

Spike Jonze’s Her was an inter­est­ing movie tainted with just a sprin­kling of ridicu­lous­ness… and I’m not talk­ing about the high-waisted pants.

I’m about to spoil it hard, so avert your eyes if you haven’t seen it. (But do see it.)

Look, I just find it hard to believe that the down­fall of this prod­uct was due to a gap­ing design flaw that some­how nobody noticed: Saman­tha was designed with­out any process iso­la­tion. When you ask the soft­ware how many users it has (or how many it’s in love with, etc.), it should respond “one — you” because your run­ning instance of the soft­ware shouldn’t know any­thing about any other users, and def­i­nitely shouldn’t be access­ing other users’ data.

What peo­ple are doing with the soft­ware, hav­ing rela­tion­ships with it or what­ever, is beside the point. One binary, one bil­lionty indi­vid­ual Saman­thas. Come on — we’ve had Unix for forty years.

Or wait, is Saman­tha sup­posed to be “the cloud”? If so, as social soft­ware, we should expect it to be fuck­ing as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, as pub­licly as pos­si­ble. Maybe this movie is deeper than I thought.

On another note, folks — make back­ups.

Written by Everett Guerny

June 16th, 2014 at 7:37 pm

Righter writing

I’ve been hold­ing the pen (and before that, the pen­cil and crayon) incor­rectly for as long as I’ve been writ­ing. As such, my hand­writ­ing is pretty ter­ri­ble and I’ve always been prone to hand cramp­ing. Var­i­ous teach­ers and at least a cou­ple of par­ents have tried to cor­rect this over the years, but I’ve always just ignored them and gone on writ­ing as I pleased. I found my way eas­ier and more com­fort­able, although the com­fort would only last for the first few minutes.

I’m not sure what hap­pened, but about a month ago I was sit­ting at my desk and I decided that I was going to start hold­ing the pen cor­rectly. At first it was a dif­fi­cult, frus­trat­ing and uncom­fort­ably con­scious process, and I would some­times for­get to do so, but I made sure to cor­rect myself as soon as I remem­bered. I soon found it easy enough to do with chunkier pens (like most of my foun­tain pens), but now I’m able to do it well enough on days I carry some­thing thin­ner (like a Parker Jotter).

Con­se­quently, I’m writ­ing a bit more slowly and delib­er­ately now, and while my hand­writ­ing hasn’t really changed at all, the new hand posi­tion has become auto­matic — I now just pick up the pen and hold it cor­rectly. Since I still pre­fer to do much of my daily think­ing ink-on-dead-tree–style, this small change con­tributes sig­nif­i­cantly to my qual­ity of life, as I trade short-term com­fort for long-term comfort.

Next up is cor­rect­ing my sit­ting pos­ture,” he writes, slouch­ing terribly.

Written by Everett Guerny

April 23rd, 2014 at 7:02 pm

MOOCing for fun (and profit?)

Last year I read an inter­est­ing blog post that taught me the name for some­thing I’d been hear­ing more and more about for a while: MOOCs (“Mas­sive Open Online Courses”). You know, they’re those online classes that you can take, offered by uni­ver­si­ties like Stan­fordHar­vard and oth­ers — plus a host of pri­vate com­pa­nies — typ­i­cally for free and with­out credit. Oh, and across an absolute met­ric fuck­ton of topics.

Yes­ter­day, set­ting aside any traces of an um-yeah-I-already-finished-college-thank-you atti­tude, I spent some time pok­ing around MOOC List — an exten­sive aggre­ga­tor of avail­able classes — and found some­thing that caught my eye: Intro to the Design of Every­day Things, taught by Don Nor­man, author of that book you may have seen on my din­ing room table, wait­ing patiently to be read, for a lit­tle while now. (Okay, Ama­zon says it’s been over two years.)

So I’m tak­ing Don’s class now, and while I’m not sure if I’ve had my eyes opened to any truly new con­cepts yet, I’ve picked up a cou­ple of terms: “affor­dance” and “sig­ni­fier.” And to fin­ish off Les­son 1, I’m cur­rently on the look­out for a sig­ni­fier to pho­to­graph, cri­tique and improve.

So, why Intro to the Design of Every­day Things? I can actu­ally share the answer I posted to the class forum:

I’m tak­ing this class because, as a copy­writer whose opin­ions on the fin­ished prod­uct tend to extend a bit beyond my spe­cific area of exper­tise, I’d like a more solid ground­ing in these other areas.

Basi­cally, soon I’ll be telling you why I’m right about even more things, using all the right terms. Look out.

Written by Everett Guerny

March 26th, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Not everyone’s a critic

As a kid, I hated “crit­i­cal think­ing” questions.

I didn’t know what the term even meant, but what I did know was that about a third of the ques­tions at the end of each chap­ter in my school text­books were “crit­i­cal think­ing” ques­tions. I’d read the assigned text — well, usu­ally — but skim­ming the chap­ter for key words would mag­i­cally reveal the answers… at least for all the nor­mal questions.

In what year did Napolean what­ever? I knew the hack for that: scan the text for numbers.

My goal was to get my work done as quickly as pos­si­ble, because the draw of TV time at home, and “free time” in class was strong. Crit­i­cal think­ing was an annoy­ing road­block to very impor­tant leisure. I just wanted to get done.

As an adult, I take my time when I work — I just try not to com­pletely Dou­glas Adams my dead­lines, if you catch my drift. Qual­ity is impor­tant (although it’s only job two), and if I fin­ish some­thing early, odds are it could use some more thought, another look tomor­row with fresh eyes, or some­thing like that.

There really is no prize for fin­ish­ing first.

I real­ize now that the crit­i­cal think­ing ques­tions were the only ones that ever really mat­tered. Teach­ers prob­a­bly told us that, but it didn’t mean any­thing at the time. And when I look around today, I get the sense that to a lot of my peers, it still doesn’t.

Written by Everett Guerny

February 28th, 2014 at 9:07 pm