A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

The Noble Pelicans

Pelicans are the inglorious flying garbage-trucks of the water-bird kingdom and as such are despised by man, fish and God. Violent, hateful missteps of nature, they fly with the grace of downed aircraft before zeroing in on their prey and skewering it with their beak/spears before stowing it to die slowly in their giant, obscene gullets. It’s a sight you don’t want your children to see. A quick search on YouTube reveals pelicans attacking or eating the following menu items:

  • dog
  • a baby
  • a tv weatherman
  • every fisherman it sees
  • a truck tire
  • the side of a building

So, when I read that the New Orleans Hornets changed their name to the Pelicans, I (rubbed my eyes with my fists, mouth open, then) assumed the branding would be a challenge. Of all the mascots in sports, this could be the toughest to transfer successfully into a logo. I remember that the Mighty Ducks’ logo was a goofy hybrid of Disney and those Friday the 13th movies.

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That was somewhat close to what I expected here. A composite of a friendly (please), silly bird and a saxophone over a Mardi Gras theme. I’ve seen a number of talented designers submit their Pelican logo designs to various publications and although most are very professional and pretty well thought out, none are as successful as what was introduced yesterday as the official logo.

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Tada! Finally, the real face of a pelican. Red eyes. Wings in full attack posture. Surely on his way to spearing a wayward puppy or slow-moving reporter (please go to YouTube).

The NBA seems to demand  that a basketball be in the main logo of every team and while that’s clearly insane, the design here incorporates it with little trouble. The font is right on the money, the fleur-de-lis is a cool touch up top and the palette seems close enough (I might have adjusted that red to a weirder Mardi Gras color). Graphic Designer Rodney Richardson took a graceless fiend of a mascot, an animal New Orleans is unlucky enough to saddled with and made a superior logo. With typical and unnecessary first impression comments like “Color me a little disappointed… Basically, the designers didn’t need to make the pelican look angry” from sports blogger Kelly Dwyer floating around, I thought I’d weigh in just as quickly with an opposing take while also educating you on the perils of pelicans in the wild.

You’re welcome.

Custom PHP Programming to Drupal

I got started PHP programming before PHP frameworks were in widespread use. The first article that got me started with PHP programming was from SitePoint. Since then they have made the article into a book series. From there I worked on a few personal projects and ended up landing a few jobs at local web development firms who specialized in using PHP for building websites.

PHP was very new at this point and there wasn’t a lot of talent out there that knew how to best put things together. In other words, I was on my own. When you find yourself in a situation like this, the best thing you can do is learn as you go. If something doesn’t work, try again until you get it figured out. Learn from your mistakes and always look for ways in improving what you do.

Working in a fast paced environment and learning as I went had the advantage of teaching me the work ethic to thrive in a high stress and high turnaround environment. But it also provided a lot of hard lessons in regards to creating everything by hand. Lessons that I will benefit from throughout my career, but also lessons that taught me there is a better way.

That better way is open source. More specifically…Drupal.

Drupal has changed my life. What I wrote custom PHP code to handle a decade ago, Drupal handles about 95% of that work, out of the box. I no longer have to debug issues because I’m using custom code that I didn’t have time to fully test before releasing to the client, because of a tight deadline. Instead I have much more time in focussing on very custom programming work and refining the functionality that I work on, such as creating a custom AJAX interface for the Institute of 21st Century Energy.

And this is awesome! Don’t get me wrong, there is still the normal stress in regards to meeting deadlines and ironing out bugs, but the amount of features that come with Drupal saves a lot of time. But you may ask how is this practical in real world examples? Lets go through a list of functionality that is very common when you need a content management system.

  • User login system.
  • Ability for the client to update basic page content on a site (such as an about us page).
  • Ability for the client to update text content in blocks throughout the site (such as contact info).
  • Being able to handle content that is more customized than basic page content (such as a list of locations).
  • Being able to define and customize fine grain permissions in the admin.
  • Having full control over how url’s look for each page on the site.

This list of features takes a significant amount of time to develop with custom code. In Drupal, you have all of this functionality available out of the box without any programming required. And that is just the tip of the iceberg! You can also easily aggregate lists of different types of data entered into the admin and create customized forms for visitors to fill out….all of which do not require any programming to accomplish. With about 20,000 contributed modules available for Drupal, there are few things you can’t accomplish without finding a module that can handle whatever functionality you need.

With that said, there is a learning curve to becoming comfortable with Drupal. But once you get over this hump, the bright light of Drupal will warm your soul and ease your heart and you will enter the promise land. And it is worth the journey!

Why We Shut Down Slurp 140

Slurp 140

Back in 2009 when we were still The Bivings Group we built a tool called Twitterslurp that tracked Twitter conversations at conferences and events.  Twitterslurp ingested tweets based on hashtag and/or keyword, and included features such as a live stream of all relevant tweets, a permanent archive of the Twitter conversation, a leaderboard showing the most active Twitter users at the conference and a stats page analyzing the discussion.

We built the tool for a couple of conferences we attended and it was popular, so we released the Twitterslurp code to the open source community and launched Slurp 140,  an on demand version of Twitterslurp that allowed conference organizers to launch their own branded version of the tool for free.

After working on the project off and on for over three years, we decided late in 2012 to shut down Slurp 140 as of January 1, 2013.

Why We Shut It Down

From the beginning, we saw Slurp 140 as a marketing tool for our company as opposed to a commercial product.  Slurp 140 included Brick Factory branding, so attendees at conferences would inevitably learn about our company through their use of the tool.  As a marketing tool it was pretty successful initially.  We got countless compliments and Slurp 140 helped us build brand awareness.

Over the years we thought about monetizing Slurp 140, but never pulled the trigger.  The math didn’t work.  The revenue we would generate from a paid version didn’t justify the development time required to create it.

Once we decided not to launch a paid version, we didn’t invest much in the way of development resources in Slurp 140.  We made improvements here and there, but the product as it existed in December 2012  was more or less the same product we launched originally in 2009.

We didn’t expand tracking options to ingest data from other services such as Instagram and Flickr.  We didn’t create a mobile-friendly version of the tool.  We didn’t build widgets that would allow the tool to be easily embedded on client sites.  We didn’t modernize the user interface.

While Slurp 140 sort of stayed stuck in time, innovative new tracking products came to market that included most of the features we had planned.  Slurp 140 was no longer unique.

By 2012, Slurp 140 had become something of a white elephant for us. We were spending time and money hosting and maintaining the product, and getting little in return. It just wasn’t worth it any more.  So we shut Slurp 140 down.

Our Plan for 2013

The digital consulting services we provide to clients are our bread and butter.  We spend the majority of our time on client work.

However,  the Brick Factory will always have an incubator culture.  We will always launch our own tools and products.   In addition to the financial reward a successful product offers, product development encourages experimentation and pushes us to improve our skills.  Building our own products makes us better.

Since our product development resources are scarce, it was important that we cut our losses on Slurp 140 so we can focus our energies on the development of a new product we are really excited about.  I look forward to sharing more details in the coming months.

We’re Looking for a Digital Strategist

I wanted to post a quick note alerting folks to a new job opening at the Brick Factory.  We are looking for a Digital Strategist to join our Client Services team.  The job description is below as well as instructions for how to apply.  We’d love to hear from you!

Digital Strategist Position at Brick Factory

The Brick Factory plans and executes world-class digital campaigns for non-profits, trade associations, advocacy groups and brands. We believe in simple solutions, setting clear goals and objectives, and providing great service to our clients. We believe a good website or campaign is never done and the launch of a website is the beginning, not the end.

Our Strategist positions aren’t easy. To be good at your job you have to be a writer, strategist, technologist and designer all at once. You will constantly be juggling new website builds, requests from existing clients, ongoing projects and strategy work.

What you will be doing:

  • Running our client’s digital programs. This involves an active engagement that is beyond management, ensuring that our projects ship on time, goals are set, tracked and met, and our clients are provided with clear, high level recommendations that help them succeed in the digital space.
  • Working in a small team environment. You’ll wear multiple hats, provide input and solutions, and work on multiple projects at one time.
  • Contributing to our blog. Brick by Brick is our soapbox to spread the thoughts and opinions of The Brick Factory. Once settled, you’ll be expected to develop new post ideas and contribute innovative content regularly.
  • Aiding in new business efforts. At The Brick Factory everyone is involved in selling new work. You will be constantly looking to expand the work in our existing client portfolio while reaching out to new business prospects.
  • Making yourself and the company better. Meaning that you aren’t ever satisfied with the status quo and are constantly looking to improve yourself, the company and our clients.

What you bring to the table:

  • You’re a fun person to be around.
  • You have a passion for work in the digital industry and are excited to help our clients implement solutions using cutting edge technology.
  • You’re a problem solver. You would rather figure out the best solution than be told how to do it.
  • You have a strong writing background. Your communication skills are exceptional and you have experience creating and editing content for clients.
  • You have experience in social media marketing and digital strategy. You’ve been involved in projects requiring things such as online fundraising strategies, A/B multivariate testing, content creation plans and email list building.
  • You’re organized. You can manage multiple projects at once and are dedicated to hitting deadlines.
  • You have relevant work experience, preferably 1+ year(s).
  • It would be great if you also:
    • Have a basic knowledge of HTML/CSS and content management systems such as Drupal and WordPress.
    • Have used Adobe products such as InDesign, Dreamweaver and Photoshop.
    • Have experience using web analytics and pay-per-click advertising platforms.
    • Have worked in an agency setting with multiple clients.

What we’ll bring to the table:

  • A great work environment, with plenty of opportunity to learn
  • A metro accessible office in downtown Washington, DC
  • Budget for training and attending conferences
  • A full-time position with a competitive salary
  • Occasional work activities, lunches, and happy hours
  • Generous vacation/personal time (we close the office between Christmas and New Years!)
  • We’re an Equal Opportunity Employer
  • Additional perks and benefits

Sound interesting? Take a look around our website, blog, Facebook andTwitter. If you think we’d be a good fit please send a resume and cover letter to jobs@thebrickfactory.com.

Grading the New Mashable

Many, many years ago Christmas morning was a chaotic riot of laughter, terrific screams, minor injuries and general twitchiness. As amazing a sight and experience as the pile of toys was, there was the overriding stoic presence of my father checking his watch, waiting to put the hammer down and march us all off to church. The experience was as unnerving as it was exciting but with some planning (midnight Mass?) could have been so much better for me. It wouldn’t occur to me for years that my parents worked it this way to get a breather from my high-pitched squeals of panicky joy.

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Mashable’s recent redesign presents all the content they offer in a way that gives me that same uneasy feeling. For me, there’s just too much thrown at the user. There is no top story, only The New Stuff, The Next Big Thing and What’s Hot all given equal importance on the page. Putting aside that fact that all three category headings are promoting the same thing basically, my eye bounces right off the page. Users will get used to this and I will as well, but I question a design that forces you to refocus every time you hit this main page. It’s a small, quickly resolved snag but it’s one that diminishes the otherwise pleasing user experience.

The infinite scroll and myriad social networking opportunities throughout are meant to be fun. I know fun. This isn’t fun. Besides those social media options attached to every article, the new Mashable Velocity graph is a clever widget that (once I learned its purpose) I skipped over with a vengeance. It measures the speed of sharing. I can’t believe I typed that. The sub levels are where this redesign works better for me. Big photography, logical layout and plenty of white space makes for an easy quick read. I don’t think many users will take advantage of the infinite scroll that is unfortunately included on the subs, however.

Homepage screenshot
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The contact and other admin pages haven’t really been designed at all, but I’m sure they will be at some stage to match the new look. I don’t feel this redesign was rushed at all, and third tier pages get pushed to the bottom of the list frequently on bigger launches.

As far as basic usability goes, the site does a yeoman’s job for me. The navigation is where I need it and the design of the elements is very clean and easy to find. So the fonts are fine, the palette is good and the code is clean, but that infinite scroll and the lack of a visual bulls-eye is going to bug me. I’m wondering for how long the bottomless pit of content will be a web trend.

Mashable’s mobile app for the Android hasn’t been redesigned/updated yet and is surprisingly clumsy considering how much care had gone into the web design.
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The new Mashable site is fully responsive, creating unique experiences for tablet and smartphone users accessing via the web.  The mobile web version of the redesign is tight and pretty easy to get through. The abbreviated navigation is a bit cryptic, and reads like a Pizza Hut promo (NEW, RISING, HOT) for me, but it’s fine and I’m likely being picky here. Also, thanks to coding limitations, I suspect, the infinite scroll is absent.
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Overall grade is a B for me. I’m a Mashable fan and will continue to be as I fight the urge to sound like an old bag shaking my fist at design choices that rub me the wrong way. I don’t want to turn into this guy

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