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If you’ve ever worked in Photoshop, you know it’s a complex application. Its depth of features and functionality make it extremely powerful. But they also make it tough to master.

That being said, I thought I was getting to know Photoshop pretty well. As it turns out, I knew less than I thought. Just in the past few weeks, I’ve learned a ton of new tricks that are helping me work faster and make my Photoshop work about 10 times easier.

Here are just two cool, super-simple tips.

1. Use a Smart Object to embed a PSD in a PSD. I never really got what Smart Objects were or how to use them. But now that I know, I’m loving them. Smart Objects are like little containers you can use to hold an image or a vector graphic safely within a Photoshop file. If I want to edit that image, I just double-click on the Smart Object and transform it right there in a new window. Previously, I had to go back to the source file, edit the image, and then re-embed it in the PSD. Clunky.

This method has the added bonus of minimizing the number of layers you have to have in your working file. That keeps things cleaner and less confusing.

2. Use Shape Layers and the Direct Selection Tool. If you’ve ever struggled with controlling the “shape of a shape,” this is the tip for you. Instead of using the Transform Tool to manipulate shapes, try using Direct Selection.

First, make sure that you draw the shape as a Shape Layer. Or if you’re using the Pen tool, make sure it’s set as Shape Layer instead of Paths.

Then, you can use the Direct Selection tool to select individual anchor points and handles to fine-tune the shape however you want. Using this method gives significantly better control than using the Transform tool. It’s been a huge help with things like keeping rounded corners from getting distorted and keeping shapes proportional.

The bottom line? Don’t assume you know everything about the programs you use … even those you use every day. Pay attention to how other people use them. Be an avid reader of blogs and forums that discuss your app … and contribute to them as well. And don’t be too proud to take a tutorial or attend a seminar.

If you find it takes you a long time to do any task, that’s probably a clue that there’s an easier way to do it. Challenge yourself to find out. You’ll be one step closer to being a true Photoshop master.

At this time of year, lots of folks stress over choosing holiday gifts for their staff. Chocolates? Too generic. A gift certificate? Way too generic.

We’ve got a different concept. We’re giving our folks the gift of a stronger career.

In the past few months, we’ve invited some of our key staff to attend professional development sessions focused on interactive design and development.

In November, two of us attended the Future of Web Design conference in New York. This was an amazing opportunity to meet thought leaders in our field and explore developing technologies and trends – everything from code management and CSS3 to mobile UX and HTML5.

And in November, two more of us attended the WebVisions Web Usability Conference in Atlanta. Again, we got to socialize and share with the developers who are creating the cutting edge in UX. A huge focus of the conference was on responsive design, a paradigm that we’ve already brought back to Atomic and are applying to our work.

Spending time and money on this kind of training is valuable in so many ways. Not only does it teach us how to implement specific new technologies, it helps us think about problems differently. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and keep solving the same challenge in the same way. Being exposed to so many new ideas has helped everyone on our team break out of our creative patterns and come up with new solutions for our clients.

It’s also reinforced our commitment to each other – to building a team, together, that’s as strong as it can possibly be. Lots of people think that developers are closed-off computer nerds, but we know differently. Developers share a unique passion: to be awesome at what they do. And it’s a great feeling to know that we’re helping everyone at Atomic do that.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone.

Many clients approach us in need of their very first E-Commerce website, or at least their first modern website. Clients just beginning to build a web presence for their business are often in need of quality photos of their product offering, as there wasn’t much need prior to the online business boom.

Ultimately, my job as Atomic’s resident photographer is to take pictures that will lead to sales. With that in mind, I try to capture how the item is supposed to be used, the key selling points and the benefit ownership will provide to potential customers. This Apple ad for their MacBook Air perfectly communicates both the key selling point and the benefit of ownership – http://www.apple.com/macbookair/ This ad for the Kammok brand hammock very clearly demonstrates how their product should be used and the benefit of ownership – http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1615737438/kammoktm-no-longer-bound-to-the-ground

Along with encouraging sales, a compelling photograph can communicate tangible qualities about the product in question, including its size, weight and build quality. Good photography should also give the potential customer an indication of what it will be like to use the product; what it’s like to hold it in his or her hand. – http://www.stoneriveroutdoors.com/knives/ceramic-folding-knife-titanium-handle.html

As a professional web designer, I’ve often been forced to incorporate outside pictures into my existing web designs. While I am able to create compelling web designs using someone else’s pictures, I usually have an idea of what kind of image will work well inside my design and I love that Atomic often gives me the opportunity to artistically combine the pictures I took with the design I created.

These days, it seems like we’re bombarded with products whose sole purpose is to move life faster.

Take coffee, for example.

I’m too young to remember, but I bet that when drip coffee makers came onto the market, people were blown away by the ease of use. No more boiling water on the stove! Then came a certain retailer who brought good coffee to the eyes and tongues of the masses, in a convenient to-go cup. Next came their instant coffee, supposed to be “just as good” as what you’d get at their coffee shop.

At this point, how much more time can we save?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for efficiency but personally, I see something being lost in our rush for results. I think we’re losing our connection with the process of creation. We’re forgetting the tangible sensation and satisfaction of making something. Instead, we just consume.

This is why I draw.

When I pick up my pencil, I start by drawing basic shapes. Then I flesh these shapes out into whatever they’re supposed to be: a face, an arm, a car, or a building. Then I go back and thicken some lines, scribble here to indicate shading and light, and think about how to highlight what’s important. After this, it’s time to really polish things up, do some fine shading and fix lines. And this doesn’t mean I’m done. I may get out another piece of paper, slap it on top of my drawing, go to my lightbox, and redo the whole thing.

Something happens when I slow down and immerse myself in this process. Psycologists call it being in a “flow state.” I just know that it’s when I’m most creative, and I find that happy mistakes often occur — like when I wind up drawing something other than what I intended, but it looks great anyway.

Going through such a time-consuming process when I’m drawing may seem tedious, but I believe that it’s an essential part of the creative process. It helps me connect with what I’m creating, care about it, and feel like I’m part of it.

Designing a website isn’t much different.

I start by drawing squares and circles on a page, carefully deciding where text, images, and buttons should go, according to the client’s needs. I may end up doing this three or four times until I find what’s right for the job. Then it’s onto choosing fonts, colors, and images, all the while keeping in mind the site’s audience and purpose.

I constantly hear people say that they’re “passionate about their work.” I don’t think this can really be understood until you yourself are passionate about something. As designers, we need passion. We need to feel connected to our work.

That’s accomplished by giving the process of creation the time it needs. Only then can we create something that we’re proud of — and something that our clients will be proud of too.

Fonts have been a sore spot for web designers for a long time.

Back in the day, we were limited to the most basic of fonts – Arial, Times, and Helvetica – because we needed to use fonts that most people had on their machines. Then came the time of JavaScript- and Flash-based plug-ins. They let us use a wider range of fonts … but things still weren’t great. Often the fonts didn’t load quickly or smoothly. Strange things happened when you used special fonts for links or wrapping text. And of course, Apple has decided not to support Flash in the iPhone and iPad environments.

Thank goodness, we finally have something new. It’s Typekit.

Typekit is a subscription-based library of fonts that designers can use for their websites. All the fonts are hosted online by Typeface, so anything you can find on Typekit, you can plug into your site. And your users won’t require Flash, like other font substitutors have in the past.
As a designer, I appreciate the selection of fonts that Typekit makes available. They look like they were hand-picked by someone with a strong design sensibility and an understanding of what works visually on the web.

And as a developer, I love how easy it is to find the font you’re looking for and apply it to your CSS classes, IDs, or any other HTML tag in your markup. You can also pare down your bandwidth use by choosing only the weights and styles in each font family that you need.

Finally, from a business perspective, Typekit is just plain affordable. You can buy one subscription for your company and use it across all the sites that you develop.

I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but Typekit may make fonts fun again for web designers. I think it’s time to break out the champagne.

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We live in a society that places an incredibly high level of importance on image. In this image-conscious, hyper-competitive business world we live and work in, using web design to effectively convey your company’s brand, corporate culture and values is essential for setting your business apart from your competitors. This makes your business’ website incredibly important, considering it’s the first place people go to learn about your company.

Is the design of your company’s website getting people excited about your products and services? If your website looks outdated, what message is being sent? Is the image your website is presenting accurate? When your potential customers, future employees or prospective investors visit your website, what is the design telling them about your brand?

Web design impacts not only your brand and how outsiders perceive your company, it also impacts how effectively your search engine optimization efforts will perform. You might be asking yourself what web design has to do with SEO. Well, Yahoo, Bing and the guys over at Google track how much time people spend visiting your site. So, when visitors land on your site and aren’t instantly engaged, they’ll hit the back button before they’ve even read a line of copy. Websites that can’t hold the attention of visitors, can’t hold the attention of search engines, either.

While the “love at first sight” factor is important, like any good relationship, you need to be engaging as well. Good design should have the end user in mind. A beautifully designed website that is easy to navigate and effortlessly promotes your brand attracts new customers and keeps them coming back. Quality web design could be the difference between building a new relationship and getting dumped.

Back when I was just a wee young designer, I used to jump onto Photoshop the second I started a new design. The result was lots of rework, and lots of wasted time.

Over the past few years I’ve settled into a process that instead focuses on upfront preparation. I’ve found that spending a bit of time on prep saves a lot of time in the overall design. And, I get better results with a less stress.

So here’s my process. Call it “Alexis’ secret for a stress-free design.“

  • Start with an idea file. I start by researching my customer’s audience and competition. I try to figure out what works on different sites and what doesn’t. I also flip though website galleries and design annuals, looking for pieces of inspiration that fit with my customer’s goals and can start to spark a design.
  • Move to sketches. Once I have a direction in mind, I start sketching. Often I’ll work on just one element of the site first — the header or the footer, or maybe the navigation. I like to get one component right, then build the rest of the layout around that.
  • Choose a color palette. After I’ve got a basic layout, I start to think about color. Often I’m working with a client’s existing brand colors, but want to create a richer, complementary palette for the web. I sometimes visit sites like kuler.adobe.com as a jumping-off point for ideas.
  • Head to Photoshop. Once I’ve got the building blocks of the site– the layout and color palette – I can jump onto Photoshop and create the final design. At that point, Photoshop is just a matter of executing the concept I already have – easy peasy.

It’s important to spread this process over two or three days. I get much better results if I have time to let the design concepts sink in, if I can sleep on them. Inspiration often strikes not when I’m plowing through a project, but when I take a moment to step away from it.

It’s also important to get feedback between every step in the process – an external perspective on whether I’m on the right track. That stops me from going too far down the road on a design if it’s not quite right for the customer. Saves me time, saves the customer money.

That’s what I call a win–win.

1. Will it have a content management system (CMS) in the back end? A CMS will allow you to make changes to your web pages easily, at any time, just as easily as making changes to a Microsoft Word document. A CMS helps you to:

  • Save time. You can make changes instantly yourself — there is no need to send changes off to someone else, wait around for them to make them, check behind them to make sure they were done correctly, etc., etc.
  • Save money. If you can make changes yourself, there is no need to pay a web designer $75 to $100 per hour to make changes to your site indefinitely into the future.

2. Will it be built using current Web content standards (as defined by the World Wide Web Consortium – /www.w3.org/)? Using W3C standards helps to ensure that:

  • Your site will work in multiple browsers (Explorer, Firefox, etc.) and on mulitple devices (PC, Blackberry, tablet computer, etc.)
  • Search engines will be able to most easily find your content. (This has to do with whether the text of your site is coded properly — search engine “spiders” look for certain codes and if they are not there, they cannot easily find your keywords.)
  • Your site is “forward compatible.” That means that any design changes you want to make to the site can be done very easily. In other words, you can make one coding change and quickly change the look of your entire site, without having to re-do the coding on every single page. This also will save significant $$ and headache in the future.

3. Can you create a professional design that will …

  • Put us on par with our competitors?
  • Help us capture a larger share of the marketplace?
  • Showcase us as a 21st-century company commited to progress and quality?

4. What is your work style?

  • Can you advise us of best practices in web design and development?
  • Will you develop a schedule and project plan for my site development, or will I have to?
  • Can you advise me on a web strategy for my company, or will you just “take orders and build what we tell you?”
  • Can you give me a reasonable cost estimate up front, or will I have to guess what my costs will be at the end of the project?