A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

The Magic Is In the Makeup

In the world of website and graphic design, image is everything, and with it, the art accompanying the project just as significant. While businesses frequently face the challenge of finding images that appropriately represent their organizations and/or services, it is not to say that success will be found 100% of the time. Surprisingly, the most important aspect of their presentation can often times appear rushed, or other times under cooked.

The entire concept of image retouching is similar to that of a magician: The viewer should never be in on the trick.

Image manipulation is truly an art, and nowadays when a 15 year-old can remove a lingering pimple before posting party pics to Facebook, everyone is in on the act, albeit with mixed results.

I am always on the search for examples of what I’d like to call "photostopping,” where both the photo and reality end, leaving you wondering why an effort was made at all.

I find myself endlessly entertained by the website Photoshop Disasters, featuring examples of poorly implemented designs that actually make it past the cutting room floor. Viewing the site, you would be surprised at the epidemic of models missing limbs in advertisements.


This example comes from the Polish edition of the Microsoft website. While it is not uncommon to come across websites using the same stock images, it would seem that there are only so many of the standard “diversity” business shots available.

In the image, one businessman is clumsily swapped for another, going as far as neglecting the color of the replaced man’s hand. While you could potentially excuse other companies for shoddy design, please remember— this is MICROSOFT!

And I haven’t even touched the subject of the obvious white MacBook prominently featured in the center of the shot.

Source: Photoshop Disasters

Further reading: Joe Wertz: The Politics of Photoshop — 10 Historic Doctored Photos

Best U.S. Think Tank Websites

As part of my research for a project we are working on, I recently looked at the websites of around one hundred U.S.-based think tanks to see what the best practices are.  All and all, this was an inspiring set of websites and not nearly as extraordinary as the list of best university sites I put together recently, but there are a few that stood out.  Below is a list of the five best of the ones I looked at, in alphabetical order.

Aspen Institute

This site has a very cleanly designed homepage, and I really like there interactive top story feature.



Top 11 Best Designed University Websites

Last week, I wrote a post about Georgetown University’s process for redesigning its website.  As I drafted the piece, I developed a working thesis that university websites are sort of like government sites, in that they have to do so much and serve so many audiences that the designs end up being utilitarian and bland.  This lead me to spend a few hours going through the websites of the 100 best universities in the country, as ranked by U.S. News and World Reports, in an effort to prove my theory.

Turns out I was wrong.  It turns out that despite all that they have to accomplish, lots and lots of universities have produced websites that are both beautiful, and immensely usable.

Following is a list of the 11 best best designed websites from the U.S. News World Reports list, as judged by me with input from some of my co-workers here at The Bivings Group.  Please note that I only looked at the top 100 on the list – I’m sure there are websites from schools outside the top 100 that are equally impressive.

Take a look, and let me know what you think in your comments.

Update: We have newer rankings for 2012 (view here) and 2013 (view here).  

(11) Virginia Tech

I like the look and feel here a lot, as well as the use of photography.  It isn’t higher on the list because it is just a little too busy for my tastes.



Redesigning Websites in Public

Living in DC, I have a lot of friends that went to Georgetown University, and have been a fan of the basketball team since the Patrick Ewing days.  Given my loose ties to the school, I’ve been watching with interest as Georgetown staff blog publicly as they redesign their website, which apparently hasn’t been touched since 2002 (wow).

I really like this stuff, as being in the web development business myself I learn a lot by reading about how other firms approach things like user research, card sorting, wire frames and defining information architecture.   I also think the transparency of sharing updates on progress is refreshing and healthy.

However, I think things went off the rails a bit when Georgetown started posting the actual comps showing what the new site will look like.  Naturally, after posting the draft designs lots of people weighed in.  And while it seemed like the majority of people preferred one of the options called Clarity (pictured below), the comments were sort of all over the place.  As a result of the disjointed feedback, Georgetown produced a new design in an attempt to respond to some of the criticism that the designs weren’t cutting edge enough.  And this has lead to more opinions.


After reading through the comments, it struck me that asking users for design feedback was probably a mistake, for a few reasons.

  • People don’t understand the complexity of the overall site.  There is a reason Georgetown hasn’t changed its site since 2002 – doing so is a massive undertaking.  University sites have to appeal to a number of very diverse audiences (prospective students, students, alumni, faculty, parents, etc.) and have to have sections that adequately represent the university’s various departments and schools.  The information architecture is extremely complicated, and it is nearly impossible for someone not involved in the process to know whether the designs achieve the goals laid out in the discovery process.
  • Since most people can’t comment on the site in a substantive way, they focus exclusively on look and feel (colors and typography).  And look and feel is completely subjective.  I personally am a minimalist when it comes to web design, and prefer sites that have a primarily white palette, and which use colors and images judiciously.  That style is not everyone’s cup of tea.  If you ask ten people to comment on a websites look and feel, you’ll probably get ten different opinions.
  • People hate change.  While this may not be true of the Georgetown website specifically given its age, every time you redesign a site that is popular and successful there is a backlash.  On the web, design is usability and anytime you disrupt users they will complain, and then forget about it in a few weeks after they adjust.  This concept is demonstrated by every single change every made to sites like Digg and Facebook.

Ultimately, the process of designing a website should not be a democracy.  It is important to understand your users and how they interact with the site, but I’m not sure it is important to hear their opinions on typography and colors.  Some decisions need to be made by a small group of folks behind closed doors.

In all probability, Georgetown is taking all the comments it is getting on the designs with a large grain of salt, and treating the reactions they receive as anecdotes.  And maybe there is some value in that.  However, I suspect posting the actual site designs for public review hasn’t accomplished much at all, beyond perhaps raising the blood pressure of the design team.

IE 6 is Almost Dead, But Not Quite

Internet Explorer 6 is the bane of web developers existence.  The browser doesn’t support web standards that have become common the last few years, and making sites work in IE 6 adds significant time to the web development process.  Despite the release of IE 7 in 2005 and IE 8 in 2009, a full 10% of users still use IE 6.  In other words, it is still too big of a group to ignore.

The chart below shows a breakdown of the decline in IE 6 this year.  I take this trend line as good news, as IE 6 has lost 8% of market share so far this year.  Here’s hoping 2010 is the year IE 6 finally goes away for good.