Saturday, December 18, 2010

It's A Wonderful Work Life

I'm struggling to write my holiday greetings this year. As I write I was hoping to announce a change of address and some good news that I've bought a house, but alas I am not immune to the insanity that has gripped the rest of the country. I am still functionally homeless as I wait to close on a foreclosure, hoping it happens before Christmas.

Despite domestic inconvenience, 2010 has been a wonderful year. Business has been growing steadily throughout the year as Gavin and I reinvent the very definition of the word "work" by incorporating it with things like "play" and "life". It just seems like we are always doing a lot of all of those three things at once, and it somehow works.

We are looking forward to settling into a new home/office in 2011, finally setting up the kind of creative environment I've been dreaming of having since college. I'll just be happy to be able to start making all the food and art I can stand, but the main benefit of my new home is everything should become 10 time easier once we are settled and I can't wait.

The big challenge I'm assigning myself for 2011 is to learn how to develop for the iPad! I guess I need to do this since I won't have a house hunt to occupy my time anymore. I will also be beefing up my social media skills, learning how to utilize Facebook & other social media for the benefit of clients and projects. I am seriously considering attending a few developer conferences (Google, Apple, and Facebook) so we will continue to spend time on the West coast for business and pleasure.

I hope to see everyone in 2011! Gavin & I wish everybody a very happy holidays, and a wonderful New Year.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Good Internet Contest Really Worth Entering! - Food Blog to Asia

I do some internet marketing, I see a lot more poor internet marketing. Here's a contest which I actually like! Blog to Asia with Pei Wei Asian Diner.



Why is this a well designed internet contest? It's collaborative and social and it all takes place online.  Even after the contest is over it carries on via the ongoing blog.  Picking blogging as the challenge is accessible for people and fun... who doesn't love to write about food? Because blogging is social media, each person who enters the contest is probably already sharing their blog with their personal network of friends - creating a viral marketing effect.

Clearly Pei-Wei has really thought this out. This IS the type of effort which utilizes thoughtful marketing teams with a plan that will carry forward well into 2012 - generating buzz and enthusiasm for their brand.  This is NOT one of these sloppy internet marketing contests that puts American's out of work.

There are so many food bloggers out there right now. This prize is so compelling. I would actually be entering this contest myself - except I already have a conflict. Work. Oh well, maybe next year.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Turkey Confidential - I am Homeless but Thankful

Full mea culpa - I am homeless. That's right, I am a homeless graphic and interface designer.  I bet millions of other Americans are thinking, "How did this happen to me?" but I don't feel too bad about it because I have a lot to be grateful for. Like my four personal computers. I may be homeless but I have plenty of work! No time to be sad, got some feeds to read and emails to check! At least I have a lot of friends online...

I am listening to NPR. They are talking about car accidents, death and paralysis. I feel good! But kind of afraid to walk across the street. I sit in front of one of my computers - listening to other people sharing sadness. After a few minutes of sadness I need a break. I log into facebook seeking happiness... Nicole says she's in her Studio. Karmina is going on a holiday. Helen is posting more baby photos. I wish I had a studio, or could go on a holiday... I am glad I'm not posting baby photos though because where would my baby sleep? I change my status to something funny like "Where did the year go?!" It worked, I didn't notice the last 10 minutes of death talk on NPR.

There is another email from another recruiter sitting in my inbox. It's for a job which I already had in the past. This job is paying $30,000.00 LESS than what they paid me four years ago. I am grateful I don't work at AOL. I am thankful I work for myself now. I am thankful I don't have a long commute. I am grateful for all my amazing clients who let me run free, the awesome incredible people who don't mind that I am homeless or even that they can't look over my shoulder every moment of the day (that's YOU Josh, Eric and Gary!). I continue to stare at my computer looking for answers to life.

NPR says Ireland is broke and needs to be bailed out. Where are your leprechauns now?! I have my own bail-outs too, which I am grateful for. Turkey prices are up this year and my dad (the ultimate hero) is buying the bird, doing all the work. My sister Fran will be there too, she's my bail-out, we live at her house. I would be a crack whore right now if it wasn't for Fran.

After a round of Turkey promos on NPR - the Mid Day show starts, the topics are Cancer and Nuclear Proliferation. How messed up is the medical system? Legal, ethical issues. Too many tests. Infective treatments.  I am grateful I don't have cancer. I am thankful my dad doesn't have cancer too. I am grateful for things like flax seed, and nutrition.

The news. Armageddon is eminent. North Korea is expanding it's nuclear arsenal.  I am finding myself grateful for all the things I DON'T have... I am homeless, I can not be forclosed on. I am not sick. I am not sad. I can't complain about work because I work for myself.  It's all kinda working in a strange way.

But I am ... TIRED... because I need control over how I sleep. I'm grateful for my friends putting up with my tired ass. PEOPLE, the most important thing that anybody could have. If I didn't have you people in my life, I would have nothing. Work would be utterly boring and devoid of meaning. No home or castle would be worth a life without friends. So, it is because of you my friends that I have a castle on a cloud and I am very, very thankful.


Happy Thanksgiving

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Robots in the Grocery Store, Marketers in Your Food

My local Giant Foods has been bugging me. It seems like the experience of shopping there keeps getting more ghetto (and it's not even in Baltimore). I go out of my way to shop at other stores because frankly I'm annoyed by all the new technology in my neighborhood  Giant. Technology that seems to be designed to police shoppers rather than to help them accomplish their actual mission of buying food.


7 Reasons Why Robots And Groceries Don't Work
Unemployment is at its highest in decades so why the heck are supermarkets replacing jobs with robots? By robots I mean, robo-cashiers. At the Giant Foods by my house when you walk in you can pick up this hand-held scanner. As you move around the super market you essentially ring yourself up while you shop. All this technology sounds handy, and this may be a boon to the anti-social or impatient, but there are fundamental problems with this;

#1 It's obviously very expensive to develop and deploy this type of technology. Couldn't the store simply have hired real human beings? In this economy I would rather somebody had a job.

#2 It has no affect on the quality of the products that the grocery store is selling. None of this technology actually makes Giant/Safeway a better store, it just makes it so they get their money from you quicker.

#3 YOU are doing THEIR JOB for them, and you're not getting paid for it. It's called "externalizing" and Giant/Safeway is externalizing their expense to their customers.

#4 It's not designed well. IF this type of service were designed well, then you would have a smart shopping cart and you literally wouldn't have to think about scanning anything, it would just be automatic.

#5 Does it make sense for businesses to develop services specifically for the "impatient" and  "anti-social" people of society?

#6 It undermines customer service. If the customer interface is a machine, then who listens to peoples questions or suggestions?

#7 Are people actually getting through the robo-cashiers quicker than they would if a good human cashier were helping them?

Are Grocery Store "Club Cards" Legal?
Aside from conveniences like being able to ring yourself up and bag your own groceries, it seems like supermarkets are OBSESSED with club cards. At my local Giant/Safeway store you'll recognize the Club Card. If you "opt in" to their rewards program, you get this card entitling you to discounts and rewards when you shop at that store.  As you shop around one of these stores you notice items on sale ONLY for club members. Now, these stores are not members only stores like Costco. Anybody is free to walk in off the street and buy groceries. But what if somebody does not want to participate in the rewards program? What if somebody for whatever personal reason can not participate even if they want to? - Is it FAIR for people who cannot or do not want to participate in these schemes to pay more for FOOD than other people? Is that legal?

But more to the point, what does Giant/Safeway gain by tracking all of their customers purchases? What do they think they know about me? . . .

Stuck With A Database Dictating What I Eat
When I shop at Whole Foods or the farmer's market, junk food temptations simply do not enter my mind the same way that they do at the Giant/Safeway. There is not an entire 400 square foot aisle dedicated to Coke at Whole Foods. So I wonder, What data is Giant collecting from it's customers that makes it so they keep selling enormous quantities of crap to the neighborhood? - Obviously they are selling lots of junk food because they keep stocking it. Somebody's buying it. Now this Giant is not in the city of Baltimore, it's not really in a Ghetto. This store is surrounded by plenty of affluent Towson residents, hardly the kind of people who load up on junk food week after week. So here's what's really odd about the marketing tactics at Giant - the products they sell the most of - the least healthy things - are always on sale to "members". This means that a lot of cheap people who want all the discounts they can get, are determining what the grocery store sells. The reason why Coke is always on sale is because people keep coming back to the Giant to buy it on sale. So this means there will always be lots of high fructose corn syrup on sale. The flip side is the grocery store has no incentive to try new perhaps healthier products, or reach out to new customers, because they've fixed themselves in a profitable cycle. Worst of all, all the questionable data they collect will continue this cycle.
- - - - - - - - - -

To me, a grocery store's job is to sell food. Period. Don't tell me what I should be eating, please do not coerce me into "bargains", just sell me food. That's all. What I've noticed between the robo-cashiers and the club card discounts is a whole lot of 'savings' on poor food and a whole bunch of employees just trying to maintain sanity. I think the business practices of a lot of big grocery stores undermine communities, reduce the number of jobs and demean their own employees and customers. It would be great if I could walk into a Giant store and have a grown up conversation with an employee about food. A conversation where we both feel valued as a customer and a worker.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Conservatives Know That Most Liberals Don't Vote

Although I'm fiscally conservative I am socially liberal. One thing I have observed with all my liberal friends, especially my friends in the Bay Area is that they tend to be totally apathetic to politics. I guess that's fair, it's so much better to just live your life and not worry about conservative agendas. And if you are a liberal that's kindof the whole point isn't it? Liberals, by their very definition, just don't spend their time thinking about ways to dominate and control other people. We're too busy just living our own lives, thanks!

I found this video which I think sums up the upcoming elsection for the liberals.... In the immortal words of South Park, "Vote or Die..." this means you my liberal comrades - yes YOU.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Breakaway Logo

I'm very excited about this new brand I'm working on. Breakaway. There will be more breakaway branding delight rolling out over the next 2 months. Here's a preview for now.

Want to update your brand? contact me, Stephanie and I'll hook you up.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Waxing Unvarished.com

I have been invited to try a new professional networking site called unvarnished.com. This site, in private beta let's people "review" each other, usually people already in your facebook network, anonymously. I thought this site could be really cool, now I can "review" that client or manager who really needs some critical feedback.

But as awesome as that may seem, I've struggled to enjoy the site because of the litany of bugs that I've experienced from the moment I first logged on. First of all, the onboarding process was complicated and strange. I have to disambiguate myself from a list of about a thousand other Stephanies - a list including a number of Silicon Valley Executives and their email addresses! How unvarnished can conceive of operating with this total privacy violation boggles my mind. I saved the source of this page and now I have an instant list of some good contacts which I'm tempted to SELL to some marketers (but I won't, I just need to prove a point).  Second of all, I have been unable to actually write my reviews. I managed to write 3 simple glowing reviews of some colleagues, but for some reason I just cant get my fourth review for Charlie to save... Every time I thought I was publishing my review, the site only published the 1st sentence, but not the whole review. On the 3rd attempt I gave up, and I mean I really just gave up. I have zero interest in checking out the site again which is sad because I know the developers behind unvarnished and I like them all.

I do not have time to - nor do I have the desire to WASTE time - on a website that just doesn't work. So without sounding too bitchy, I guess my point is this. All you web/software people, please try to be aware of the impact that your product is making on people's time. I know you want to grow, but better to pull back and release a more polished thoughtful product later, than to annoy potential users in order to rush to market.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Send Jonathan to NY Fashion Week Party! Saturday August 14th

If I were in San Francisco this weekend I would be going to the "The Fashion Aid" party at the Barber Lounge.  Jonathan Baker, already a rockstar stylist at the Barber Lounge is also San Francisco's up and coming fashion hero - AND WE NEED YOUR HELP TO SEND HIM TO NEW YORK FASHION WEEK IN SEPTEMBER!!! The Barber Lounge will be hosting a party that evening highlighting several San Francisco designers and a special music performance by Rachel Silva.


Come for the fashions and help Jonathan get to NYC

Fashion Aid, August 14, 7-10pm. Help us send Jonathon David Baker to NY fashion week

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Finally a Home

We finally got our offer accepted on Friday for the forcosure we've been trying to buy. It's a bit of a fixer-upper but in Baltimore this can be pretty affordable. Total cost after remodeling should be under $180,000.

We start the really fun process of inspections and crap this week. So we'll see if there's a hole to Hell in the basement that might kill this whole deal. If not we have to build a huge list of all the stuff we need to do and find contractors ... basically a huge project is starting. We'll be able to move in around Thanksgiving. THANKS!

I guess I'm happy. I keep muttering the word "finally" over and over in my mind. Now I can FINALLY unpack from my move over two years ago! Now I can finally have the space to work on Art. Now I can finally start my culinary experiments (starting with beer making and then onto the wood burning outdoor oven). Now I can finally have my own yard to garden in - city farm coming soon!  Now I can finally collect things, anything I want, and have somewhere to put it. I can finally have lots of guests. Finally I'll be able to practice yoga or practice anything away from prying eyes. I will finally get to see my entire wardrobe at a glance for the first time in memory. I will finally get a good nights sleep.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Bait and Switch Job (Why I Quit A.O.L.)

Back in 2006 I worked for AOL in Mountain View, CA. In one sense I felt like I was at the top of my game professionally, but the experience of working there made me feel like I had hit bottom. The work I was doing was good, I got to redesign a mission critical product, mail.aol.com. But all the external factors to work were horrible. Quite simply, I landed a bait & switch job. First I was hired to work on one project, a music player, that project got killed. I was also told I got to work from home twice a week (my commute was horrible), this "deal" also got thrown out with no explanation. OK so perhaps these are petty reasons to quit a company. Both my managers were experts at taking free vacation time as much as they could. It was really hard to get the product team at AOL to weigh-in on my design work, they wanted my boss' input on my work... but Mike & Bill were always MIA. I have never seen so much cronyism as I have at AOL. It was a very strange place to work as a female too. The favoritism, friends of the boss getting whatever they wanted, a true legal liability.  The BEST part of this set-up was that it was a set-up...  My boss Mike was setting me up to look bad, I guess because it probably made him feel better about himself.  I actually considered a lawsuit. But I'm not a lawsuit person so I quit instead.

Today I very happily work for myself.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Where Do I Get my News?

Where do I get my news from? When I'm not too busy I'll scan the Washington Post (first, since it's the best US paper) and then I'll scan NYT. We are always scanning the BBC radio, or the BBC website. I have BBC, NPR, and Huffington Post apps on my iPad and I was scanning all the news from the apps during my commute. I am now totally convinced that smart phones and mobile devices like the iPad are MADE for commuters. For laughs I'll go to SFgate.com or Latimes.com. Just to see how Californians are screwing themselves.

I am not into TV news but I'll occasionally tune into Mad Money,  BBC, or Fox news (because CNN sucks right now). I'll watch 60 minutes if they have an interesting story (I do love Andy Rooney). Thinking more, I read magazines but not that much since I'm too cheap to actually buy magazines nowadays. I'd rather buy a latte than Time. I will start getting more magazines on my iPad though.

As far as I'm concerned the BBC is the best English language news source, period.
BBC is the no bullshit, no nonsense source for unbiased news.

I've overheard a lawyer/fancier from First Round Capital remark that the Wall Street Journal is the "only news worth reading". This is part of the reason I think law & finance people are so out of touch... The WSJ is extremely conservative and elitist. It's also expensive, kinda like a Rolex of newspapers. Nice to have but the cost doesn't justify it's existence, and it's designed to makes their subscribers feel better about themselves.

Of course there are the blogs... I read some awesome finance blogs. When I need to remind myself that the real estate market is loaded with bullshit I'll read John Burns Real estate consulting, which tells some truth. When I need to remind myself how abusive most of our culture is I enjoy this alternative culture blog. When I'm not too busy I'll read my friend's excellent blog or facebook posts. Some of my friends like Suja R. are always sharing something very interesting. Mark Hurst's Good Experience blog  is a fabulous source of UX design insight. Overall I am very open to everything so I like to try out new blogs & news sources all the time. When I spot BS, is when I tune out.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Who Knew Baltimore is a Farm City?

Last Wednesday I made my first Veggie Trade of the year. I had sprouted  too many tomato plants and since I had no space in my garden for all of them I posted a listing on Veggie Trader, offering them up to anybody who wanted them. Within a couple of days of I had some responses, and on Wednesday Beth (the first responder) came to my home to swap. We had emailed already, Beth was picking up her CSA box and asked if I wanted to share some greens in exchange for my tomato plants. YES! I said, and Wednesday 6pm the tomato plants found a new home and I got dinner delivered to my door.

As soon as the trade was made I took off to the Baltimore City Public Library to see Author Novella Carpenter present her book "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer". I haven't read the book yet but had caught Novella speaking on NPR earlier in the day and was intrigued. I'm not really a farmer but a girl can dream, right? Novella Carpenter gave a wonderful presentation on her urban farming exploits to a packed house in the main library auditorium. Her book is about her tiny farm on a vacant lot in a bad part of Oakland, a rough town not unlike this one. During the question/answer session Novella reveals that her farm has been bought! "Fortunately the new owner is letting the farm stay…" she explains, "but I'm going to need to move eventually…"  to this I call out, "Move to Baltimore!" and Novella sort of pauses and jokes "Maybe I will?" - and the audience breaks out into cheer and applause! Who knew that Baltimore, an old rust belt city with blight and abandonment is a hotbed for urban farming?

Later I came home and made a salad from my trade. I enjoyed the salad with some local cheese and bread from our local baker which we had on hand.  Beth graciously included a pint of the most delicious local strawberries which I had for desert and I realized that I managed to do something very rare that day. Last Wednesday I did not spend one penny whatsoever. It was a $0 day, and I felt very content.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Do Not Buy the Gulf Oil Spill

Hi my name is Stephanie, and I'm a designer. I don't know anything about oil, or oil wells, and I don't know anything about politics really... but I do know how to solve problems.

This Gulf Oil Leak - the Great Leak - is depressing me. I keep saying to myself, "This should never have happened in the first place." In my world, the design world, you simply don't create anything that does not work. In my world, everything gets tested, and vetted, and discussed until everybody is sick of talking about it but they know for certain that it works. In my world, if some business type comes up with a scheme to get rich, but it's a bad or ill-conceived idea then then we (ethical) designers shut them down. Somehow when our love affair with oil started  back in the 50s nobody really thought this through. Nobody said, "How is this total commitment to oil going to play out 50 years from now?" Well, I'm certain there were business people thinking it through but was there anybody who was thinking this through for us? For the millions of real people who have to deal with the consequences of these decisions? Nobody asked me if I wanted to grow up in a world encased in asphalt. Nobody consulted me to ask if I'd wanted traffic, commuting, noise pollution, air pollution, and congestion. Nearly all of my food comes from the west coast, which takes gallons of gas to get here, and I literally have zero choice over this. Thanks world!

There are things I'm doing to combat my sadness over the Great Leak. It can be summarized as my own personal oil boycott. I'm not driving at all, I'm walking or biking. All travel is cut. I'm gardening more. I'm buying local as much as possible but better yet I'm trying not to buy anything at all. Most important I'm TALKING about how I'm not spending money or wasting time with oil. The more I go down this road, the green, thrifty, do-it-yourself road, the better I feel.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Form Follows Function - iPad Edition

I got an iPad. So far I love it. I feel like the chains have been broken and I no longer have to log incredible hours in front of my office & desktop setup. Even as I write this post I'm sitting in a bar, enjoying a glass of Cabernet and chit chatting with people, other iPad owners who also love the pad. It's way more social, more touchy-shareable than the iPhone and iPod touch.

Before the pad was released I was working with chef author Eric Gower and I predicted that this device could empower kitchen cooks and be oh so more effective for reading recipes than the iPhone could ever be. Check out this post about a kitchen cabinet outfitted with an ipad cubby... Something I literally spoke of, just ask Eric!

Menus on My Mind
I have more ideas, and Nelson, the owner of Grand Cru, the bar I'm writing this from agrees. This thing is going to revolutionize all menus forever. Yes menus. Why kill trees when you can just update some website? Like that Sangiovese? Read all the background info about it, find out about the producer, order some more.


Form - omatic
In addition to menus in restaurants and bars and hair salons there is also Doctors office potential. I hope never to see a poorly formatted paper form ever again. I hope no more health care administration will have to waste time inputting somebody's info. Any place where a customer needs to fill out a form, this process can now be improved... Human resources forms, heck forms at the DMV, all info should be captured electronically.

Survey Says?
What about surveys or user testing? I've already invented the killer user testing app in my mind. Just don't think Apple would let me sell it. But market research, surveys, and observational opportunities will be transformed by the iPad.

Point of Sale
If you go to the Apple store you'll notice the employees have these tricked out iPhones with a credit card readers attached and they can sell you anything at any spot in the store. Soon, maybe not in an Apple store, but in some other fancy retail setting your salesperson WILL be the iPad. Or more likely you'll experience "iPad enhanced shopping". Imagine navigating a Walmart, finding items quickly thanks to the pad. Don't worry if Home Depot doesn't have that new BBQ you want. You can order it on the fly and have it delivered from a different location. Actually, they could bring you three, let you decide which you like best, and you can pay for it at home.

So What about Email?
Ah email... The Bain of my existence. Let me just say, I couldn't check email on this thing for the first two weeks I had it because I did not want to spoil the nice happy feeling I have about this device, but then I finally relented.  I do not use Mac/me mail which is the only mail app you can get on the iPad. I do use Gmail however and it works great on the iPad through Safari. Not quite as good as the full desktop version but good and oh so convenient. So convenient in fact, I composed this entire blog piece in Gmail.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Logo & Web Solutions For The Low Tech World of Massage

Studioroom is pleased to announce the launch of an all new website, with all new branding for The San Francisco School of Massage. At first this project was daunting, trying to create a new logo for a venerated massage school. The world of massage makes me think of crystals, lavender and "new age" music. Most of what we see that is massage related are spa brochures and websites showing some woman relaxing in a peaceful setting. None of these things honestly depict a massage school.

The task: Create a logo for a massage school that alludes to human anatomy without being too literal.  

Logo design is an iterative process. So I started out with an exhaustive typeface search, then explored ideas for artwork.
Through the process, clients and designer alike explore many logo variations and can determine what design works for the client's business...


...Winding up with a final logo design, and then translating that design into a website  - it's one of Studioroom's specialties! 


Now for some shameless self promotion. Unlike a typical branding agency or graphic design service, we emphasize website best practices as much as possible. We never propose ideas that won't work well online. We never recommend tricks which might look flashy, just to impress a client. All of our sites are always search engine optimized and viewable on most platforms including old browsers and mobile devices. The true test of how well a brand works is directly related to the media supporting the brand. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

How Your Facebook Gets Phished and Your Twitter Gets Taken

Last summer I felt like a rockstar on twitter. I had finally got into the groove, comfortable with "tweeting" and I was gaining followers like never before. Over ten a day follower emails were coming into my inbox, announcements like "Benjamin White is now following you on twitter" ... I was getting pretty good at this social media thing! By the end of one week, when I should have had a few hundred followers, I still only had 70. Something wasn't adding up but I was too busy to figure out why, so I assumed people were just rapidly following, then un-following me as some kind of retarded marketing tactic. Then it started getting out of control... 30, 40, 50 new followers a day. It was becoming a nuisance, cluttering up my Gmail, so I logged into twitter to turn off those annoying email alerts. When the alerts kept coming, that's when I knew. Nobody was following me. Twitter wasn't sending me those emails. It was phishing.

Phishing is simple. You get a phony email that's designed to look like it's from a legitimate website. People click on those emails, thinking they need to accept a new friend, or respond to something, and the hook is set.  Once they "log in" to that faux website, it's over, they are caught. Phishing goes on not just for twitter or facebook, but for eBay, Yahoo! and You Tube. It's all over the net. It's especially bad for those people who have the same login and password to more than one online account. Criminals know everybody keeps this simple, once they have your login to facebook it's highly likely they can get into your webmail and then into other accounts.

I never clicked on the announcement emails directly, I learned years ago working (at eBay actually) that this is a no-no.  Instead I'd went directly to twitter.com to see who my so called new followers were. Even then it took a couple of weeks for me to figure out that I was being bombarded by phishing emails and I knew better. Still, I have different logins for everything, and gmail is excellent at figuring out what is spam and what is real.

There are other ways you can get phished, for example right within Facebook. Phishing does not have to come through your email. Any website where you can chat, or receive messages from other people you can get phished. The only rule anybody should try to remember is, don't click on links from a message that takes you to an outside site where you have to go log in. Just go to the outside site, type in that address yourself if you want to see that video, friend request, or special prize. Also, encourage your friends not to send you information that's not relevant to you.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Day In The Life Conference - Next Weekend! April 24th, 2010

Hey Designers - Have you ever thought to yourself, if only I knew the right people then I could do "x"? Or if only I could find the right research about this problem I'm trying to solve? Or maybe you realize you need a fresh perspective on life in order to come up with some really creative solutions? Well, if you're in the DC/Baltimore area then here's your chance to get all that and more!

Check out A Day In The Life Conference


Some great speakers will be presenting some interesting sessions:
  • The Business of Design
  • 140 Characters or Less
  • Branding You
  • The Designer & The Community
  • The Green Movement & The Creative Industry
  • Making the Transition from Print to Web
  • Networking 101: Make It Work For You
  • The Client Is Always Right
  • Typography: More Than Words
  • Will It Print?
  • And more!
Studioroom will be there, I hope to make some new friends and get lots of inspiration with you.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Friends Don't Let Friends Get Screwed by the Real Estate Market

Dear Friends,

I'm trying to buy a house here in the Baltimore City. I've been shopping here for over a year and since I'm new to Baltimore, and new to the house buying process, I'm really confused... I need advice and it occurs to me that many of my facebook friends have some good advice for me about Baltimore real estate, Maryland real estate, and home buying in general.

Most of what I'm looking at are small, older houses (or row houses). All of them need a bit of work, nothing is great. All homes I'm looking at are at least 60 years old. My budget is about $200k (would prefer to pay less) and so many places need so much work that when I tour a house I see tens of thousands of dollars, if not a hundred or more, in remodeling & repair work needed. It's a bit insane.

The only homes that have been selling over the past year have been either "very nice" homes or "bargain priced" fixer-upper homes. But 98% of the homes listed are neither that nice, or that much of a bargain.

What's Confusing?
From all the research I've done about the Baltimore market, I think prices here are still too high. I think that house prices should be at or below 2004 levels. (note: I don't think this is necessarily true for other markets). But *everything* I'm seeing is not priced below 2004 levels... Unless you're some kind of insider... I keep hearing about "private transactions" which are about 25% less than comparable listed houses. And then there are the auction houses which are selling for %40-%60 below current comparables.

Furthermore, Baltimore City has a tremendous OVERSUPPLY of houses. There are potentially over a thousand homes I could be considering. So why do they seem so expensive? Additionally, the city will announce plans to deal with the 30,000 (yes thirty thousand) abandoned homes homes here.

Questions...

- Is the Baltimore market at it's bottom? Can it even go any lower?
- Maybe I should rule out Baltimore City altogether? Maybe Baltimore will slip backwards?
- Do any of my Baltimore friends have any advice on neighborhoods I should consider? Which ones I should be avoiding?
- Why can't I just make a lowball offer on something? (see below)
(My agent is not giving me clear advice on any of the above questions, especially the lowball question. She always says, "it depends on each seller's situation"  when what I really want to hear is "I think you can get away with THIS offer for this particular house". And she keeps mentioning how she is "really busy", I think she's sick of me.) 

I just want a decent, affordable home with a manageable mortgage, where I can be happy. I can not afford to overpay or fix problems. I need your advice.

Thanks,
Steph

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Struever Bros. - Belvadere Square Does Not Need a Subway Sandwiches

I just learned that a Subway Sandwiches franchise will be the newest tenant at the Belvadere Square marketplace... a marketplace in my community filled with local gourmet food vendors. How a national fast food chain fits in to a unique and upscale place like the Belvadere Square is mystifying.

Hey Struever Bros., We all know commercial leases are down, but it's not fair to existing tenants or patrons to dump a Subway on us just because you want to get more rent. The Dunkin Donuts kinda sucks too. 

The landlord is Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse.  As a real estate developer who has been "creating communities in Baltimore for 30 years" - you would think they understand a thing or two about... um... creating communities. This is not fair to the neighboring residents, the patrons of Belvadere, who have been trying to improve the community. We are the ones who ultimately pay for the marketplace. Nobody is happy about this. There are other Subways close by, up York Road in much more appropriate locations, and Subway is in direct competition with the other vendors.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hey ZipRealty.com - Please Fix Your User Experience

So I'm looking to buy a house finally. It's tricky. There are A LOT of places for sale but most of them are pretty dumpy. Now I understand why new construction is so appealing despite its boring style. Anyway, I'm using ZipRealty.com to help me find a home to buy because it's like the ebay of realestate websites. Sorting through hundreds of potential homes (yes hundreds) is really difficult. We all know that sellers like to exaggerate the appeal of their houses as much as possible. We all know that the whole house buying process seems rigged in favor of sellers and agents. The marketplace of real estate is really vague and I feel like this is intentional. I wish ziprealty.com was more like Google Finance - but it's not and I'm stuck with it for now.

So... there are a few things Zip should be doing from a User Experience perspective which would help me, and every other buyer, but they are not.... 

HEY ZIPREALTY, PLEASE FIX THESE THINGS ASAP!!!


#1 What is the deal with Review This Home? It just doesn't work. This could be the most useful feature on the whole site, it could help SO many users filter through the crap. It could save people so much time and effort and it just does not work. Anybody, neighbors, not necessarily home buyers ought to be able to leave a comment about a home listed on zip.  I can comment on almost anything on the internet except for the most important purchase of my life. WTF!!!? Hello! Product manager at Zip Realty - go talk to the folks at Disqus.

#2 I should be able to converse with agents, all agents, without leaving the site. Or without leaving the house detail page. It seems stupid to go back and forth over email so excessively. Why can't Zip BE a turbo charged email client for the purpose of selling homes?

#3 Filtering and organizing needs a lot of interaction design improvement. So many small interactions should automatically save. For example, if I'm trying to rank my interest level on a house this UI should automatically save my rank without me having to hit the little "save" button every single time I adjust this menu. You just don't need all those save buttons. It's called AJAX and here Zip needs to take some cues from Google.

#4 The sidebar is useless. No I do not need to see the photo, name and phone number of my agent on every sidebar in every single page view - I ALREADY HAVE THAT INFORMATION thanks. Instead I'd like to see ACTIONABLE interfaces, useful features, meaningful context, bubbled up above the fold of the page.  Users should be able to customize the sidebar on a home detail view. All social and communication tools are buried down on the page and it's too difficult to share a listing with my friends & family. Right now If I want to post a home to facebook, or email a listing to my dad, I have to scratch my head for 2 minutes figure out how to do that - every time.  It's not easy to find.

Overall Zip is pretty good, I consider it to be better than no real estate website. But the site could be greatly improved by a thorough user centered REDESIGN. My biggest complaint is that they haven't done this already, it's long overdue.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Four Generation Diabetes Story

I was going to write a diabetes valentines post for my other blog, veggie trader. I was going to write something pithy about love equaling food, and try to relate that somehow to overloading yourself with love and getting diabetic. I was going to write this in the context of the Let's Move campaign started last week by first Lady Michelle Obama. And then I was going to tie all this together on a blog which is really about gardening... but this is too difficult.  I'm not doing that, I'm writing about my dad instead.

First let me say that the Let's Move website could be A LOT better, the design needs to be more engaging, useful with actionable information. Oh how I wish I could have been consulted to work on that site! A full review of some of these "government sponsored help campaigns" will be coming soon.

Last Saturday I was hanging out with my dad and we started talking about his diabetes. He developed type 2 about 15 years ago around age 60. My dad's mother was diabetic as well as her father. That makes three generations of type two diabetics. (oops! I'm never going to get health coverage now!)

Looking back at my childhood and remembering how he acted about food I asked my dad, "How did you become diabetic?"

My dad had a clear answer, "I think it was a combination of factors. Denial on my part, and deceptive food labeling and marketing. I ate too much, and I ate too much sugar and too many highly refined foods which act like sugar in your body when you eat them." He went on to add, "I just wasn't really aware of what I was eating. There simply wasn't any diet or nutritional information available to anyone in the past. I had no way of knowing that some of the stuff I was eating (like white bread) was hurting me." The past meaning, before 2000. I remember my dad eating normally. He enjoyed sodas and wine and cheese and stuff, but I don't recall anything excessive. He definitely enjoys food though...

Then I asked, "When do you think you started to become diabetic?" and my dad's answer surprised me. "I think it all really started in my twenties." Really? So my next question, "Do you ever think back to your younger self and wish you could eat differently?" "YES! All the time. If I could go back I wouldn't have eaten so much ice cream. Or gone for that 3rd or 4th helping of cake or pie." Ah portion control.

"Also there were the issues with my mother," he added. Now this is the strange part - the mother connection which Michal Pollan alludes to in his book, In Defense of Food. Let's just say my grandmother was also a food lover and I think she passed some of her attitudes and eating issues on to my dad. My dad was what you'd call an 'emotional eater'. He doesn't do this any more but he used to eat to cheer himself up when he was down. This I think it's the root of his diabetes, more than genetics and portion control. We both think the emotional eating habit came from his mom.

The really interesting thing about my dad and his diabetes story is that he grew up on a homestead, a completely self sufficient household that produced it's own food. When he was a kid they had a cow for milk, chickens, gardens, and fruit trees. His grandmother would bake bread fresh almost every day in a wood oven! It's not as if my dad (or my diabetic for bearers) didn't know where good food comes from. Dad'll use his homestead childhood to justify eating well, citing the home-made butter on a fresh slice of warm bread from the wood oven.

So I'm the 4th generation in this story and I certainly don't want to wake up in the future to daily insulin injections. I'm the one who grew up with Saturday morning cartoons bombarding me with sugary cereals which thankfully my mother wouldn't allow in the house.  I also helped my parents in the kitchen - a place where I feel very comfortable today. We always prepared real meals from real foods - a lost art in these times! I'm convinced that kids today need the same hands on learning about food that I had.  You can only truly understand what you're eating when you plan, shop for, and prepare your own meals on a regular basis.  Now with a bit of awareness and a lot of practice (in & out of the kitchen) hopefully this diabetes story wont continue past the 3rd generation.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Keep it Fresh - Search Engine Optimization

I am not a good writer. I know some amazing writers and I am not one of them. I'm a designer, a visual person, I'm all 'show' and not so great at telling. This is a problem on the web because it doesn't matter how beautiful my designs are or how amazing a photo might be, search engines are blind to images.

Lori Culwell's recent article in the Huffington Post reminded me of my SEO rule number 1 - a rule which for some reason I have a very difficult time getting people to comprehend - which is simplistically "SEO is all about content".  I guess that is very simplistic because here is Lori's take;

"There is not a week that goes by in my capacity as a Search Engine Optimization and Marketing Professional (a field I've been working in since the dotcom boom in San Francisco) where someone doesn't email me to say some combination of the words "Can you fix my metatags? My site has a really high bounce rate."

So, my answer this question is: yes, I can fix your metatags. There is a slight (a very slight) possibility that you've put something really awesome up on your website, and that because the site is wrapped in Flash, or your web guy didn't know anything about keyword analysis or where to put the tags, Google is not finding it, and that's why no one is coming. But, can I just be honest here? The high bounce rate is the giveaway. The fact that once people get to your website they leave, because YOU'RE NOT TELLING THEM ANYTHING NEW, is what lets me know that all the SEO in the world is not going to help you. ..."

So yeah. Translation, get a copy of Dreamweaver or Contribute or start blogging or do something to change up the content on your website more than once a year. For a website to get a decent SEO ranking you have to keep your content, I mean your TEXTUAL content fresh every week or so. There is no amount of photoshop magic that can possibly be done to make Google rank one page over another.

Design and visual elements absolutely do affect a site's bounce rate (how long a visitor stays on the site once they find it) but these have no affect on SEO. My recommendation is always have a beautiful website and always keep the content fresh.

Get more SEO advice in Lori's book:

Monday, January 25, 2010

She Has A Blog?! - How I Began Blogging

I finally saw Julie & Julia last night. Loved it! The movie is a true story about a 'lowly cubicle worker' (Julie Powell) who decides to transform her reality by becoming a food blogger. Julie assigns herself a monumental project, a theme for her debut blog, cooking Julia Childs' Mastering The Art of French Cooking.

There were some funny parallels for me in this story. Like Julie, I love cooking. Like Julie, I was struggling with some career angst when I turned to blogging as affordable mental health therapy. But unlike Julie I was in Silicon Valley and my perspective on blogging was quite different. My workplace (AOL) encouraged blogging, and I remember my coworker Holly getting all the love in the office just for going to geeky after hours meet-ups (like Mobile Mondays) and writing about it. At the same time one of my friends was rocketing to the all-time blogging hall of fame, winning webby awards year after year, just for sourcing and posting the cutest photos of baby animals.

I guess I was a little jealous of Meg, but not so much of Holly. Neither of these two ladies got me to start blogging, I'm not competitive that way. When you work for any company everything you create, all that you write or draw, BELONGS to that company. The company, not you, owns your work. On top of that I had a retarded manager at AOL who was constantly 'cherry picking' other peoples ideas among other things (like playing favorites with only male coworkers!!!). Like Julie my thought process to begin blogging went like this; I could while away my days for an egomaniac who obviously doesn't respect me  - OR - I can be the master of my own time with all these great web 2.0 tools at my disposal? So I quit and I started working as an independent consultant.

Blogging for me has been a revolution. I started mostly to learn about how it works, so I could design and develop blogs for clients. I wanted to understand how a blog works with search engines, how it affects a business, and all the different ways one could use a blog as a software tool.  I found myself in the middle of a communication revolution.  This blog, Info Geo, is more than my journal, it's an ongoing experiment in internet communication... it's a laboratory for ideas. 

So THAT is how I began blogging & I haven't looked back. Now, you will notice that I have no advertising here (that's only because Adsense won't work well enough here). I hardly write every day (I'm just too busy right now). But believe me - there will be a lot more to come.

I Wish Google Still Suppoted Notebook

I think Google Notebook was the best all around research bookmarking tool-thing on the web, but Google recently stopped supporting it. I'm not sure why they did this but I think they want me to install the google toolbar instead. I tried that out and it just taxes my whole setup here too much, I don't like it.  Notebook was better.

What was especially awesome about Notebook was the way that I could gather and organize images and photos... conveniently remembering the URLs for me.  Letting me share that visual info with other people on the same project collaboratively. It was a great tool for visual professionals... sigh.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Putting My Foot Down on New Years Commitments

Resolutions are sooooo zero. You're not gonna resolve to do anything! How about a commitment? Now that's change I can believe in...

From now forward I am commiting to:

#1 Be positive in action, thought, and words ALL OF THE TIME
This means I wont watch murder shows on TV, nor will I entertain fighting, war, or horror movies. As far as I'm concerned the only violence I ever care to learn about is something affecting a direct relative.

#2 Eat to live a long healthy life
As much as I can control, I will only eat sustainably grown foods by local producers. Mostly fresh vegetables. Everything I consume must be labeled organic & local & fair trade or else I simply don't want it.

#3 Zero waste
I'm tired of leftovers and having too much leftover stuff lying around useless. This is an end to overbuying for the sake of making myself look like a hero to my family... The real heroism is CONSERVATION.