Tuesday, 29 March 2011

How to setup an off and online magazine

I’m not usually one for self promotion (says the freelance business owner), but setting up a magazine and community led to new-found skills which I now apply to every project.

It was over Google chat an old friend first discussed the idea of starting an off and online magazine. The concept was fairly simple, create a magazine which was free and targeted a specific demographic to encourage and promote local creative talent.

My role was established over many late nights consuming red wine and ready meals. It seemed what the business needed was creative direction and a force to establish a strong sense of brand identity. Our contributors and readers were the university student upwards to the middle aged aspiring creative. In general, I’ve found working with younger people a more creatively rewarding experience; ideas are almost always completely original and devoid of market trends. It seemed the opportunity was too good to miss.

Starting a business on only your own financial merits is a risk as few are willing to work for little, but the real challenge is getting those same people to stick to necessary deadlines. Historically, this kind of business is better suited to the university student as they’re already connected with potential contributors. Both I and Jason, my business partner, were working full time. Nevertheless, within a couple of weeks, we found between us a handful of writers and two photographers. Enough to start thinking of what content we could include and what events we needed covering in the near future.

In my head the design needed to be simple but equally shout the magazine’s message, namely “exploit, harness and support the best of local creative talent”. We had a name for the business; “Buzz Brighton” so the colour scheme seemed obvious. I don’t like surrendering to the first creative line of thought, but yellow and black seemed so striking and in-line with the brand, I decided to go with it.

We imposed a necessary launch date to cover the upcoming Great Escape Festival. This gave us an opportunity to create links with the festival promotion companies and other local businesses. It gave us credibility. It had the added benefit of giving our two very talented photographers access to big events covering even bigger artists. It was the content that new start-ups dream of.

Before our contributors (or “bees” as they were coming to be known) ventured out to an event, we’d always give a similar brief. Don’t create a factual document; create the atmosphere, inject the personality and get creative. The articles came back in droves and the results were inspiring. Before long we had enough content for the first magazine design.

I had produced wireframes, designs and front page concepts in Photoshop, but the world of print media is not Photoshop’s forte. I had to learn inDesign to a professional standard in two weeks before the print deadline. Luckily, I have a lot of experience working with Adobe products and to their credit, extending your adobe software knowledge is made easier by the fairly consistent UI and common function set.

Somehow, between coordinating "bees", learning inDesign, setting up business meetings, planning a launch event, liaising with printers, designing the magazine, attending interviews, holding introductory pub meetings and working full time; I had a website to build.

The site was to be built using Joomla which I knew would give me the flexibility and dynamism that the news site would require. By this point we’d also further developed the commercial model for the business. We wanted to attract advertisers online so we needed a hook for people to visit the site. We had the brain wave of introducing an online music chart. Local musicians and bands could upload their music for free, and in return - once a month the user’s favourite band (decided by a voting system) would win a prize ranging from a headline gig to cash.

I developed the chart with a bespoke Joomla component. It’s one of the great benefits of working with the world’s best supported CMS. Every widget, piece of functionality and site gadget can be created and bolted on to the backend. You can be safe in the knowledge that the CMS was developed in such a way that the integration is seamless, both from a developer’s perspective and the web administrator’s. This is of course if you know how to develop using the suggested MVC technique along with many of Joomla’s built in classes and functions.

The whole project was fraught with potential showstoppers throughout. Countless hurdles which needed to be overcome, in which one could have resigned to just not knowing what to do. The possibility of giving up due to being burnt-out was a real one at times. In reality though, our efforts were paid back in a rewarding experience which enriched the lives of everyone involved. We created a micro community, a magazine which captivated potential advertisers in an already saturated market. Inspiring university lecturers, artists, musicians, contributors and locales - we surpassed our own and others expectations.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Living London Diaries - Day 2

In my previous lives in cities speckled throughout the UK, I've found myself guilty of not knowing my home town surroundings as well as I should. I moved to London early December 2010 and was determined not to have the same thing happen. I start this diary on day 2 as last week’s venture is not fresh in my mind like todays.

Borough Market, London Bridge

I have heard of Borough Market since I first arrived in London. It's only a short hop on the train to London Bridge from Lewisham (my closest main line train station) so it seemed a logical place to start. On arrival it seems a pleasant and bustling type of market full of funky smells, hordes of munchers and produce stands bragging their 'award winning' something or other. Of course it's tough to know how many of these are genuine in their credentials, nevertheless the market has an excellent reputation for variety, scale and a richness of experience due to its history and passion of the people involved. I scoffed a salami and cheese ciabatta with a glass of red before heading off for a walk along the South Bank. I loosely planned to visit the modern Tate gallery and everywhere in-between before finally arriving at Putney Bridge for around half four, ready for the annual Oxford/Cambridge boat race set for five.

South Bank and the Tate

It's around two to three kilometres from the London Bridge end of the South Bank all the way to the Millennium Wheel by Waterloo. It's a pleasant enough walk on a summer’s day with lots of regeneration work, modern walkways and grassy areas. Before long, you'll find opposite the millennium bridge the modern Tate, a gallery which has gained a reputation for abstract art which demands it's viewers to learn the artists thought process to extrude any relevance or meaning. Far from neoclassicism the Tate houses impressive, bold and sometimes nonsensical works which I find interesting in small doses.

Keep heading West along the bank and you'll reach Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The site is a modern replica opened in 1997 approx 750 feet away from the original location (fire and neglect spelt the downfall of the two previous constructions). Regular performances are held as well as guided tours for those who have the inclination.

The Oxford / Cambridge Boat Race

I had only heard of the boat race the day before. I vaguely remember watching the event on TV in previous years. It's never had the effect on me that it clearly has for millions around the world. I've not been brought up in wealth, nor have I a private education which would provoke and stir nostalgic feelings towards an event of this nature. However, on arrival at Putney Bridge underground station (or more accurately overground at this point) I found myself overcome with excitement and pride in this historic event. Lines of people queue and make their way across the bridge, along the embankment or across to a favourite viewing spot. Unless you get to the area early, almost every inch of the water bank is taken up by one of the quarter of a million spectators. The race starts and cheers can be heard in a Mexican wave fashion as the two boats progress along the river, screams of "Oxford!" generally win out in my particular spot. I had no loyalty to either side, only a desire to get caught up in the moment. After the boats passed, I raced a minute toward Bishops Park where the BBC had a large screen on display. Approx 15 minutes later Oxford recaptured the title by some length, out classing and performing Cambridge. Although perhaps not the close race we all wanted, there was enough of a sense of occasion and fun to make the event very enjoyable and a definite must to return.

South Kensington, Riots and Home

The bus home from the boat race was a long one, so I decided to escape by the natural history museum (note: must visit here soon, very impressive building!). There, I made my way up to the rim of Hyde Park just by the Royal Albert hall. Boris bikes (or Barclay’s bikes) have become a now publicly accessible means of travelling in London, and in many cases preferred; I was soon to understand why.

Heading back East I soon discovered that the "peaceful protest" which was happening throughout the centre had escalated. By the time I reached Hyde Park corner, fires and riots could be seen and Piccadilly shut off by the Police. This caused havoc with the roads and I found my bike by-passed cars and people far quicker than any other mode of transport. However after heading up Shaftesbury Avenue I found myself lost in the maze of boroughs of Islington, Hoxton, Hackney and Shoreditch. Somehow, after taking which ever turn felt most appropriate I ended up back at London Bridge. All that remained was to find a Bike port (5 minutes from London Bridge past London Dungeon and Winston Churchill's Britain at War museum.), weekly shop (M&S on the same road) and get on a train home.

At this point, I'm excited, elated and quite frankly spent! I have a zone 2 travel card but I managed to get through the day with only £10. I heart London.

By Si Davies

Friday, 25 March 2011

A Website for Website Artists: Part 1

I've been trying to plan, wireframe, design, build, write copy and deploy the new Si Davies Web Marketing website for around six months now. In-between moving houses, making (and breaking) friendships, bands and girlfriends (believe it or not I'm actually fairly easy to get on with!), it's been tough to find the time needed to carry out this mammoth task. Although frustrating, the situation has afforded me time to step back and analyse the aesthetic relevance, message impact and 'timeless test' of the new design.

Against all odds (I can hear Phil Collins now) I've found the design has actually grown on me over time. For this reason I've persisted and strived to make no shortcuts or compromises. If there's been a minor user experience issue which entailed development or even a more global site issue such as the user journey not being as clear as it could be, I've found myself taking the time to read up on effective breadcrumb design (for instance) and ensure I've done a thorough a job as possible. Have I finally reached work ethic maturity? Has anyone else experienced this seeming epiphany?

I'm now at a stage where the home page has been designed and I've a clear wireframe for the rest of the pages throughout the site. I have a taxonomy, a content map and lots of notes on the database structure. I've also developed the home page statically using a combination of XHTML, CSS and JQuery. The site is so direct in its message and suggested bespoke plugins that it feels like deploying the site on anything other than a bespoke CMS would be overkill. This is unlike me as I'm usually sensitive of the security, maintainability and flexibility benefits of deploying on a CMS such as Joomla, a CMS of which I also have over seven years experience developing with. For better or worse (and I may very well change my mind again) it feels like the best option for me is to spend hours delving back in to PHP and MySql and creating my own admin UI and code. I'm wondering whether this is due to my new found zest for understanding programming languages at a higher level. Time will tell I guess...

Si Davies