Nov
9
2014

Peacock Carter is 8!

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Wahey! Peacock Carter is 8 years old this November.

8 years in the same business: quite a daunting thought! As I’m sure many other SME owners and staff can attest, there is a lot of room for change in 8 years:

  • We’re now a limited company, having started as a partnership
  • Almost like the Sugababes, I’m the only original member of the company left: people change, and move on. The first time is a shock to the system, but new blood (and more importantly, new ideas) have been invaluable in getting us to where we are today.
  • We focus much more strongly on ecommerce these days; I put this largely down to our move, several years ago, to almost 100% open source software, including the fantastic Magento platform (our Magento experience here).
  • Training courses are one of top 3 things we do in terms of revenue these days: building a website is one thing, but having a well-polished training course can add so much more value to a client.
  • We’ve never been entirely reliant on clients in the North East (as much as we love clients on our doortsep), but by focusing on specific platforms, we’re attracting clients from all over the UK, and world, at a greater rate than ever before. That’s pretty cool, even if Skype is a bit of a pain!
  • It’s fair to say we were not very picky with clients when we started: we were lucky enough to work with some great clients early on (and still do work with some clients who even predate Peacock Carter’s existence), but we made naive mistakes and dealt with some clients who I’d like to think, in my newfound wisdom, we wouldn’t deal with these days (all team members even have access to a “bad client smells” list these days). Perhaps part of this, as with any new creative business, is the need to build a portfolio of work.

One of the many reasons I’m still here is that I find a challenge in the way the business constantly evolves; it is almost as addictive as running a business!

Party like its 2006!

As is our tradition, we celebrated with our team and selected clients, suppliers and hangers-on last week: we’ve worked very hard this year and I’m proud of where we are, and where we’re going as a company. Plus, I like the fact I get to keep the giant balloons after the party.

In all seriousness, it’s taken me this long to give myself reasonable breaks from work when I need them: I’m hugely guilty of never switching off, but the odd week (or even few days) away from work leaves me more refreshed than before: time off is a necessity to stop you burning out, so use it!

Keep it simple, stupid

What’s interesting (to me, anyway) over the last few years is that we’ve stripped back to basics in terms of our service offering: we’ve returned/are returning to our core four platforms: MediaWiki, Magento, WordPress and Drupal.

This seems to be a process we go through every few years: we have our core technologies (particularly MediaWiki and Magento), and over the years we accumulate more offerings to try and provide a better solution to clients; after a few years we then shed the less useful of these platforms, and return to a few core platforms. One useful outcome of this is the chance to evaluate new technology in an appropriate environment, but maintaining these sites is a bit of a hassle long term, especially as new developers take over projects!

So, thanks for the laughs, blood, sweat, tears, support, memories (and money to fund my Lego habit, of course), and keep them coming!

Oct
16
2014

Durham Cathedral in Lego – 105,000 bricks and a lot more fun

Durham Cathedral in Lego - altar

As most of you will know from my frequent, unsubtle mentions on Twitter, I’ve been volunteering at Durham Cathedral in the past year.

As one of the 70 or so volunteers helping to build Durham Cathedral in Lego since July 2013, we’ve now raised over £105,000 from individuals and organisations donating towards — and more importantly, adding a brick to — – the scale model of the cathedral.

This project supports the Open Treasure project, a £10 million+ project to conserve the cathedral buildings and create a new museum and exhibition space (worth watching the video of plans narrated by George Clarke).

Take a look at this time lapse of a year of progress for Durham Cathedral in Lego: after 15+ months of volunteering now, it’s a great reminder of how a little time each week can help build something fantastic.

And, of course, if you’d like to come and add a brick (or better, 20!), the model is staffed from 10 – 4pm on Monday – Saturday, and 12 – 4 on Sundays.

Sep
12
2014

Creative Sorbet: design briefs to cleanse your palate

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When you’re busy, it’s really easy to move from one design project to another quickly, and after a while I find that designer’s block sets in and I struggle to think creatively for client projects.

One remedy I have found to this is to expose myself (not like that!) to other designers’ work: read a design blog; look through portfolios. This helps to distract me momentarily from the project at hand, and gives my brain a break, to the point where I can usually progress beyond a blank page to a concept for the client.

The other thing I do is to work through sample briefs not tied to a client or internal project, which allows me to test my skills, learn new techniques and refresh myself. This is a little like sorbet in a meal: these little projects cleanse your design palate in anticipation of a new project.

Sample design briefs to energise your creativity

As such, I find these simple briefs I’m using/have used re-energise your creativity between projects. Creativity needs some constraint to help you focus your ideas, and a simple brief like those below helps me.

Feel free to use them too, and suggest your own on Twitter to me, and I’ll add them here.

1. Book cover for the next James Bond novel to be released
2. Beer engine clip: redesign the logo for your favourite beer, and think about its application at the bar: how would it look among other brands?
3. Football club shield/logo
4. Wall mural for a multicultural suburb of your city
5. Illustration style portrait in two colours
6. Isometric style map of your local area
7. 1920/1930s style railway poster for your city/town

Sep
12
2013

WordPress North East talk slides: Responsive workflow for WordPress

I gave a talk at WordPress North East last week, and have finally remembered to type up some of the notes to accompany the slides.

The talk was called A responsive workflow for WordPress theme development (catchy, I know), and was a run through of how I deal with responsive projects in WordPress at Peacock Carter.

The basic workflow I discussed was along these lines:
  1. Content audit: at a basic level, look through what the client already has (or plans to have) on the website in terms of content, and identify any potentially awkward types: video, large tables of data, etc.
  2. Wireframes: from here, I start planning where content is going to appear at various breakpoints I’ve identified (there’s a grid in the slides I use for sketching wireframes for each main template I’m planning to design versus each breakpoint I have in mind).
  3. Mock-ups: from here, I go to visual mock-ups based around the wireframes (which provide a low-fidelity idea of where things go, but not necessarily a to-scale layout). The first three stages are typically not presented to clients, because I present the designs in-browser (mitigating issues with different displays in different browsers, and I will sometimes only create partial visuals and move on to designing in-browser once I have a good idea of where I want to go).
  4. Implementation: this is generally the first deliverable the client sees: a fully functional, responsive design built as a WordPress theme. I use @toddmotto’s HTML5 blank theme for WordPress as a base (I’ve altered it a little to suit my needs). As per Todd’s theme, I use one stylesheet which contains all of the media queries for the designated breakpoints (highlighted as an example in the slides).
  5. Testing: obviously, some testing is done before presenting the design to the client, but this step gives me more time to try and break the WordPress theme I’ve built, especially between breakpoints. Consensus during the talk was that respond.js was one of the better ways of dealing with IE without too much hassle, though this isn’t part of my workflow (yet!).
  6. Minification/production: tying everything off before launch.

Hopefully that’ll help anyone who didn’t make the talk itself (shame on you!). There was also a great talk from Roger at 21 Applications on using WordPress for web application-style projects and for prototyping, and another useful talk on the future of WordPress by our wavy-haired host Steven (@stompweb).

Aug
6
2013

Review of WordPress Theme Development – Beginner’s Guide

WordPress, the ever-popular open source CMS, spawns hundreds of help guides and books from plugin development to general administration, so I was pretty excited to see Packt’s  WordPress Theme Development Beginner’s Guide book (and thanks to Ramon for the tip the book was out!).

WordPress Theme Development Beginners Guide book

Let’s start with the facts: WordPress Theme Development Beginner’s Guide (Third Edition) was written by Rachel McCollin and Tessa Blakeley Silver and is 252 pages long.

WordPress Theme Development: the good

As experienced technical writers, the books flow pretty well, and builds around a fairly believable case study as motivation for building and customising the WordPress theme.

Each task is organised in small numbered steps in Packt’s typical “Beginner’s Guide” format, and the frequent screens and code samples help guide you through things solidly. The book increases in complexity through chapters.

The book strays beyond theming in to basic set up and configuration (such as enabling search engine friendly permalinks), but I think this is likely to be useful for first-time or beginner-level WordPress developers/site owners.

WordPress Theme Development: the not-so-good

As with any technical book, it’s impossible to please everyone, though there were a few areas I felt could have been stronger, including developing WordPress child themes, and more could have been made of what can be done in functions.php (such as controlling the behaviour of the admin bar), but these were perhaps deemed to advanced for the book.

There was also some content I thought was unnecessary “fluff” for the book, such how to validate HTML and CSS as I think readers of the book should be at the stage to know that already, but perhaps I’m presuming too much; again, it’s very hard to judge what content is valid and not for beginners who are at a variety of levels.

How is WordPress Theme Development for a beginner?

I let Matthew, our office manager, read through the book; as someone with a basic grasp of CSS and HTML, and experience using WordPress as an administrator, he seemed like the type of reader that was the target demographic of the book. Here were his initial impressions:

  • “Easy to follow in most chapters, with helpful screenshots”
  • “Simple guides to WordPress settings I didn’t know about”
  • “I feel more confident about creating a theme in WordPress now”

Summary

So, how do I feel about this book? Overall, it’s fairly solid for a beginner’s guide if you’re looking to get in to WordPress theme development, and should get you up and developing simple custom WordPress themes in no time at all if you have a basic understanding of HTML, CSS and a little PHP. As with any technical book, it’s likely a useful addition to online documentation and tutorials, but not a sole resource.

Disclosure

I was gifted an ebook by Packt, the publishers, in return for this review.