Published during: June 2013

The Little Things: Why I’m Done With Android

We were at the doctor’s office for a checkup on our little girl late last week, and I have a Greek class coming up – a tough class for which I figured I’d spend some time studying and preparing while waiting for the doctor. Unfortunately, I just discovered yet another of the thousand little details Google doesn’t think matter. I can’t study Greek on my phone here because Google refuses to ship (or allow users to install) a typeface that includes the polytonic Greek character set on Android. The default system font, Roboto (a poor clone of Helvetica), has accents but no breathing marks. This means that at least half the words in classical and Koine Greek are simply missing letters on any web page, and for that matter any app that doesn’t embed its own fonts.

This is not a make or break issue with the phone, but as my primary tool for mobile work in situations like this, it is quite frustrating. What is more frustrating is Google’s absolute unresponsiveness about this. There are many ways the issue could be fixed, none of them particularly complex or time-consuming (unless the folks working on android have made some really silly decisions and coupled the font deeply in the OS, which I don’t believe for a second). No, by all appearances the explanation for the still-open ticket is quite simple: Google doesn’t care. Read on, intrepid explorer →

OS X: A Few Much-Needed Improvements

A good friend of mine has been making the transition to Mac from Windows recently, and the experience has highlighted a couple of things that Apple really ought to do different and better with OS X:

  1. Turn the Dashboard off by default.
  2. Provide information about app installation and uninstallation.

Read on, intrepid explorer →

New Sites Live

I launched a couple of sites today, both for my friend Sarah Warren:

  • The Accidental Okie — her blog, based on an existing WordPress theme but with some substantial tweaks to typography, colors, backgrounds, etc.
  • Swoon Designs — a site for her business selling custom invitations, stationery, and branding.

Sarah has been blogging as “The Accidental Okie” for a couple years now, but she spent that whole time on using one of their upgrades for a hosted site on her own domain. I was unsurprised to hear she was outgrowing, though — good themes are hard to come by and impossible to customize to the extent one would like, so most people who are serious about blogging end up moving to (if they stay with the platform). It made sense to do that and get her professional site launched at the same time.

The design for The Accidental Okie is just a tweak of an existing theme — completely new background, header, typography, and color scheme, but someone else’s work otherwise (and generally very good work indeed.)

The design for Swoon Designs was a custom design that Sarah and I brainstormed up together after looking at a number of other sites she liked. It’s built as a child theme of a popular framework theme, Reason 2.0. That, frankly, is a mistake I won’t make again. While the theme works well (and our final outcome was one with which we’re both happy), it was a chore getting it to work. The original template designer ignored some fairly basic rules of good design, especially in his CSS, and it showed rather painfully in making a child theme. In the amount of time I spent on it, we could have built Sarah a theme from scratch (and avoided quite a few headaches that came with this setup).

The original is also monstrous as far as these things go — some 36MB when compressed. By contrast, the compressed size of all the themes for, including all the child themes is about 394KB. Yes, that’s two orders of magnitude different. Nothing screams bad design decisions like a theme that size.

This experience further persuaded me that, while I’ll be happy to keep doing WordPress projects for friends from time to time,1 I want to continue my move away from PHP and WordPress to other parts of the web. There is simply too much garbage in the PHP world, and I’m increasingly aware that one of the best ways to be getting better work is to get out of that world entirely. There are a lot of reasons for that — not least the “approachability” factor in PHP, which means a lot of non-programmers are doing it, and especially in the WordPress theme area — but moving further the way I already have been toward the Python community seems like a better plan every day. (Node.js is of course on my radar as well.) Things that require you to be a good programmer are better for getting work that pays well (as the market isn’t flooded with people who don’t know what they’re doing but are willing to work for a fifth of a reasonable developer rate), and they almost always entail better kinds of work to be doing anyway.

Speaking of which… now would be the point when I stop writing and go hammer out some more work on Step Stool, which is coming along nicely (albeit more slowly than I hoped). And of course, I’ve resigned myself to the reality that this site will certainly be getting a fresh coat of paint along the way with that project. Can’t pass up an opportunity to redesign the home page, right?

  1. Just to be incredibly clear: Sarah was a great client, and I have no qualms about working with her again in the future. Likewise, the work I’ve done pro bono for Mere Orthodoxy is just grand as far as I’m concerned, and I have another couple friends with similar projects potentially in the pipeline. But unless things get really desperate, the likelihood that I’ll be taking PHP or WordPress jobs from random folks on the web is… low at best. 

Modular scales: fantastic, but don’t overdo it

I’m a huge fan of the Modular Scale tool Tim Brown put together a few years ago, and I’ve used it on a number of projects to help me set up good vertical and horizontal rhythms on a number of sites I’ve designed. As soon as I read Brown’s original article at A List Apart (Off the top of my head, I know I used a scale on,,,, and — which is to say, every site I’ve done a full design on in the last two years. Again: I’m a fan.)

That said, the modular scale can get away from you pretty easily if you’re not careful. I’m working on a couple different designs at the moment — the one for Step Stool and one for the simple, clean theme I’ll be distributing with Step Stool for anyone who cares to download and use it. (Wouldn’t that be fun — to discover one of my designs on some random blog or site? I can see where WordPress theme designers get their kicks.) In both cases, the modular scales I’ve generated have been pretty robust.1 As a result, I ended up with a rather ridiculous SASS file with the modular scale embedded for both of them, with tons of sizes that I’ll never use.

More importantly, though, most of those sizes I should never use. This struck me tonight as I was looking at the Typeplate framework. One of the neat little SASS mixins they have defines a limited set of heading sizes — just nine sizes total, in fact. By contrast, the modular scale tool will happily spit out a table with 36 different values on it. Let’s be honest: if I use all 36 of those values, or even if I don’t choose from among them discerningly, my site is going to be just as much of a mess as if I eyeballed it. (Probably more.)

The trick, then, is to use the principles of good typography with the tools available to make good choices about which sizes from the scale to use. (Limitations are often one of the most powerful tools in any creative process.) As the folks over at Typecast put it:

Limiting your typographic scale can improve your typography considerably. And rather than arbitrarily plucking type sizes out of the air, ratios will ensure your intervals are consistent and your scale harmonious.

The modular scale tool gives you the latter bit. Limiting the number of pieces from the scale, and choosing those elements sensibly? That, you have to do yourself.

More reading

  1. In case you’re curious: the Step Stool scale and the Clean theme scale