This is the archive of version one, made in 2006, launched in 2007, and active until 2012. It’s archived to preserve the original design and its content that was referenced in multiple posts, books and galleries. There’s a holding page before the new site arrives.

Entries tagged with ‘Grow Collective’


  1. A Site for Sore Eyes: OmniTI

    You may have seen the recent case study featuring the evolution of OmniTI’s brand mark. Work on their new web site started soon after that was finished. This is what we did:

    OmniTI index

    OmniTI’s CTO Chris Shiflett and I worked closely on every aspect of the vision, brand message, information architecture, copy writing and content. For me it was the best kind of arrangement resulting in a piece of work I’m especially pleased with. Along the way we developed the kind of relationship that I’ve come to treasure, making me feel like I work in a collaborative industry, rather than a service one.

    OmniTI Sketch mark

    Metaphors for the invisible

    Discussions around the new site made me think of two interesting design problems. Scalability and performance, security, development and infrastructure are invisible arts. Historically, companies have fallen back on metaphors to communicate what they do visually: Faux boxes of imaginary software; stock photography of happy people at computers; they never worked for me. From my perspective, OmniTI is one of the finest development companies in the world. They’ve written some of the seminal technical books in our industry. They work for some of the most heavily trafficked sites on the planet like Digg, Friendster, National Geographic and Facebook. Their contributions to open source are legendary, with their utilities being used by Yahoo!, amongst many others. When tackling email on a massive scale they built the world’s fastest mail transfer agent. To reduce what they are capable of to awkward metaphors seemed disingenuous. I wanted to do something different.

    Another significant problem was how to convey personality. People buy from people, especially in a service industry. The relationships we develop are priceless. Many developers in our business—especially those who attend conferences like OSCON where they often speak—are already aware of the people at OmniTI, but they themsevles don’t tend to shout about what they do. Part of the reason for this is the culture of the company itself: Relaxed and down-to-earth but jam packed full of some of the most talented people anyone could hope to work with. Excellence has become commonplace, making celebrating it feel almost un-natural. It just happens by default. So, the web site needed to show some leg, reveal their personality as well as their work, without forcing patterns of publishing on them that would not be maintained.

    These problems made the job interesting. I wanted to accomplish three specific goals:

    1. Make OmniTI accessible. Personalise the brand, reveal the company character, and the people within it.
    2. Communicate the scale, quality and depth of what they do to technical and non-technical people.
    3. Make the whole experience of researching and contacting them simple, easy and useful.


    To try and accomplish the goals we took a novel approach to design. It might seem ad-hoc, but it was deliberately organic; we let everything develop collaboratively, at almost the same time: From setting the vision to requirements gathering, persona development and task analysis, through to information architecture and copy writing. It sounds insane, but with a condensed time-line and a lot of intellectualising to be done, it worked in a way that only a small agile team that knows each other well can do.

    Along the way we went through four related iterations of style. Each reflected a development stage in the multi-track process we embarked on. The staff started writing a personal note for their own profiles. Some chose to stay with the professional photos, others supplied their own. All of it real though and unfiltered by marketing hype. Read the personal note of Rob Speed to get a glimpse of what I mean. The iterations kept getting better. In fact, everything kept getting better. Nothing is ever perfect, but a feeling of constant iterative improvement is a joy in itself. These are some of the highlights from my point of view:

    Theme, copy writing & content

    The theme is deliberately textual. OmniTI is a company that manipulates data in ways that are so esoteric that sometimes I had a hard time conceptualising the scale, nevermind the method. Text is the prevalent form of web data. It felt right to focus on it.

    Early on I decided to drop almost all decorative images and anything that was not content from the design. The data, the typography, they became the decoration. That went hand-in-hand with the decision to let OmniTI’s people, work and clients tell the company story. We decided to have a dual section in the planet for official company news and relevant posts from the staff’s own personal blogs. For the rest of the site, any copy that didn’t reflect the spirit of the company was avoided, and that which was left would be factual, not hyperbolic. Any claims OmniTI have made are under-estimates, and therefore all the more exceptional.

    Tiered detail

    I wanted to find a way of communicating the scope of their ability in a simple way. The audience diversity made this problematic. When developing personas to identify who we wanted to reach, two stood out: The technician and the executive. Both have very different requirements from the site. Both required detail in different areas. The first answer to this was for the home page. To grab people’s attention, I had the idea to display the actual output of their work as data in real time. There were technical and disclosure issues. We settled (for now) on showing some meta-level data around the number of pages and people that OmniTI’s clients serve:

    Screenshot: 'last month we helped some of our clients publish 880 million web pages, seen by 93 million people.'

    This will evolve over time and also be stored in an archive for future reference. Even more importantly, it is no mere boast. The figures are independently gathered and conservatively rounded down.

    The next solution was to somehow ease all of the audience into the site, whether they were technical or not. The narrative pattern we developed I call tiered detail. At the first level, like the index or any of the main navigation landing pages, chunks of different data are labeled with headers that encourage page skimming to find interesting topics. Copy is short, terse, accurate. The second level, like a personal profile, is more detailed and specific but has contextual links to related second level topics. The copy has links to third level pages where the focus narrows further to provide the kind of detail some people might want. These third level areas can be on site or off site—we didn’t distinguish between the two. All detail is useful when you want it.


    Both Chris and I love beautiful, clean URLs. So when he came up with the idea of using verbs rather than nouns in the information architecture we we quickly agreed to make it so. The outcome of a fair degree of debate and wrangling is the structure you see today. The about page is, the work page is, etc. Deeper pages have a URL that forms a sentence, such as:

    All trailing slashes have been removed making for highly legible and beautiful URLs in any context. More traditional URLs are redirected to the verb, so people can still type and reach the about page. If you wish to know more, read Chris’s post, URLs can be beautiful.

    Typography & palette

    Evolving an interface from a brand, the type choices of which I had nothing to do with, is always interesting. Trying to find compliments is fascinating, even more so in a design that relies heavily on type composition and treatment for decoration. I’ll pretty much let the typography speak for itself .

    Italic Baskerville ampersands in the byline

    Highlights for me are the raised initial used in headlines which I always see as an icon, my favourite Baskerville italic ampersand used in the byline on the home page, and other subtle treatments like the semantics of the page titles or contextual links. I used a traditional scale, body copy is set in Georgia by Matthew Carter with the headlines set in a Lucida stack.

    The palette is included in this section because the typography developed alongside it, and they are irrevocably linked. Or, I should say, they are tonally co-dependent. Although the palette is autumnal, it is a counterpoint to the season, and you may see us have some fun with it over time, but the effect will persist: Type highlighted by luminosity, regardless of palette.

    Layout, functionality & accessible Ajax

    The layout is elastic in every respect to a strict baseline grid. This served the narrative theme, splitting the content in to equal chunks higher in the architecture for skimming, resolving to conventional asymmetric columns deeper in.

    OmniTI contact Ajax

    Jon Gibbins did a sterling job implementing the JavaScript effects on the site. He chose jQuery and added some flavour of his own to make everything accessible with or without JavaScript turned on. That extends to the Google Map on the contact page which fills the expanding container as font size is adjusted. Jon also audited the site for accessibility generally, applying his uniquely pedantic but practical approach to support a wide range of disabilities, especially where the JavaScript is concerned. You can read more in his post, Accessible Ajax: OmniTI.

    All other functionality was handled by OmniTI, with Theo himself building an unbelievably quick search engine with Perl in about an hour, and Chris building out the CMS equally as fast it seemed.

    Experience & narrative

    As designers, we wear a multitude of hats. In the final analysis I think we’re experience designers more than anything else. In many cases we use design to tell stories, or help a story unfold. We create spaces in which enacted or emergent narratives exist and the OmniTI site is no different. Like all real tales though, there’s still much to be told. Hopefully they have a good starting point; an authentic opening chapter where the history of the last ten years can sit comfortably with the next ten.

    For my part, I hope the story is a joy to read. I hope the design is unobtrusive and becomes an ambient signifier that adds a little texture to the content. It is a design I would have liked to implement for Grow itself, so a lot of my own predilections went into it. I was lucky: The great relationship that we have, and the creativity of OmniTI, allowed my ideas some breathing space. We took a journey that resulted in a site that is re-markedly different to other technical companies. Some might view that as dangerous. I think the opposite is true. To me it was a great project to do. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting enough to enjoy. If that’s the case, keep an eye on it; there may be some more subtle changes to come.


  2. A Day and a Night of Bristol Geekery

    The Watershed, Bristol

    You might be surprised how much is going on in Bristol. Last night it was SkillSwap Relaunched and today I spent the morning at the UWE Web Developer Conference.

    SkillSwap Relaunched

    I landed at SkillSwap after playing Lego Mars Mission with the kids, giving Xen a bath and seeing them both to bed. So I was late arriving at the new and swanky Goldbrick House on Park Street (Note: Whoever stole the <h1> from their web site, please hand it in at the bar.) Many thanks to Siftware for the bottle of Gem to welcome me in the middle of the “musical chairs” session (as I named it,) where anyone can get involved in the discussion by taking one of the five seats. People come, people go, the discussion moves on swimmingly. It’s relaxed but dynamic. I liked, very much.

    After that came Matt Jones’s talk. The only man I’ve seen yet to say something negative about the iPhone, have people laugh and feel obliged to join him in a drink at the same time. Hey, it’s all in the experience stack… somewhere. Nice work, Matt.

    It was great to catch up (briefly) with future Borg member, Ian, meet Ed in the flesh as well as Gisela, and share a pint of cider after with Steve. So a good night was had by all. SkillSwap was fun. Come to the next one with me.

    UWE Web Dev Conference

    Today at The Watershed, the UWE Web Developer Conference saw Andy Budd give a sterling talk about UX. He hit all the right spots and gave us some great future reference material to rationalise UX for clients.

    Dave Raggett’s opening talk on The Web of All Things was particularly fascinating. Some of it I got, some passed me by like a designer staring at UNIX (which I felt like.) The concept of ubiquitous computing leading to a paradigm shift in design from the desktop / laptop to multi–modal presentation seemed to fit somehow with Matt’s take on interfaces demanding too much attention, and the need to make tasks almost effortless (from the night before.) Not sure how yet, but it demands further research.

    It was good to see Sam again and grab a chat on the most slouching sofa in Bristol with Alex. I’m only sorry I couldn’t stay around for the rest of the afternoon, especially to see our own Chris Garrett take part in a panel on working in the South West. Nevertheless, congratulations to Dan Dixon and everyone at UWE for putting on such a great event.

    Regarding Parapets and Geek Togethers

    It’s always amazing to me how events happening in other cities always seem to be on my radar, but big ’ol Bristol with its masses of technical and creative talent floats somewhere in the background.

    For a long time I kept my head below the parapet in the Grow bubble. It was like a little island inside Bristol populated with a few old colleagues and techies. From the inside looking out (as it were) Bristol seemed fairly silent—not many social events around Web design, and pretty quiet all ’round.

    About a month ago, I grabbed a coffee with Richard Caddick of CXPartners to talk about his company doing some UCD work as part of the design consulting I’d been asked to do on behalf of a client in the states. We got into a discussion about people, co–ops, events and Bristol. It adjourned to another day where I also met Joe Leech—both “diamond geezers ”—and started to be enthused by the idea of trying to lend my weight (physically vast, influentially small) to promote Bristol, fellow geeks and any of the events happening in the city. So that’s what I’ll try and do which this post is starting. If you have any ideas throw them my way and perhaps we can put old Brizzle on the map a little more, and along the way maybe make some new friends. Cool, eh?

    P.S. In the spirit of Geek Togetherness, next Tuesday evening we’re hosting a few drinks and a bit of food for Chris on his first visit to Bristol before his workshop on web app security at FOWA. If you’d like to pop down and say hi, give me a shout.

    Note to self: Marking up lots of vCards in posts needs a shortcut. Call in the Gibbins.


  3. Grow Loves Freelancers

    Grow Collective was is inviting new members. If you’re a freelancer in or around Bristol, UK then we might have had something interesting for you.

    Sat, 4th Aug, 2007: We’re bursting at the seams trying to assimilate everyone. Thank you to everyone who replied. Hopefully we‘ll be inviting members again soon!

    Grow Collective

    A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (about 50 miles and 4 years) Charlie Markwick, Paul Whitrow and I got together to formalise an idea that I’d first broached with Charlie in 2001. The idea was that mature professionals with specialist skills who worked for themselves might come together as a co–operative consortium to provide services. Grow was born.

    The principles are simple: Everyone brings their professional profile and specialist skills with them but retains the right to claim any work done under their own name, company or site. Everyone is equal under the parent brand with agreement reached democratically. We would work to co–operative principles, and promote the kind of personal relationships with clients Charlie had been enjoying for over 20 years.

    By allowing everyone to develop their careers personally and anchoring the organisation around personalities, the parent brand would benefit by association: The focus was on people and their skills, not the brand per se. However, everyone would share a common set of ethics and practices. Everyone would be customer facing, with primary project managers agreed jointly on a project by project basis. Project fees would be split based on contribution, agreed in advance between us, but reviewed at project close.

    It was a heady time, forming an organisation that was completely different to the agency model that is so prevalent in our business where, in the worst examples, all the talent is white–labeled and all credit assimilated into the agency brand.

    Since then, Jon Gibbins and Alan Colville have joined us; we’ve proven we can more than just compete with traditional agencies, and we’re going from strength to strength. So much so that we are turning down more work than we take in, by a ratio of five to one. That’s why we’re inviting new members from Bristol or the surrounds, especially interface and graphic designers with a special interest in Web standards, user centred design, information architecture and accessibility. Read the invitation post for more, or drop me a line directly using my vCard, below.

    The Grow Collective model of a technical and creative Co–operative Consortium is something close to my heart, which I know has the ability to help budding and mature freelancers work on projects that may ordinarily not be available to them alone, yet still retain their independence. If you’re considering starting one, or just want to find out more about how they work, please feel free to drop me a line anytime, I’d love to help if I can.


  4. Feeding the Growth Culture

    Experience designer, Alan Colville has just joined our collective. He’s an experienced user centred design specialist who previously designed the interface for Telewest’s video on demand and personal recorder services — no mean feat given the constraints of Web TV so we’re all happy to be working with him. Please head over to Grow and commiserate with him if you wish.

    Alan Colville

    Alan Colville

    In the next few days he’s going to be publishing some great insights into usability and experience design which I’ve been lucky enough to have a sneak peek at. Keep an eye on the Grow feed if you’d like some practical insights into the user centred design.

    I’ve added a Feedburner feed for anyone masochistic enough to subscribe to my special fried spam. It’s hand coded and seems to be valid, but feel free to let me know if you get any problems.

    This is my lo–fi intermin solution. Neat, eh? Apart from sating my natural urge to publish and venting a little verbosity, there’s something appealing about not having to field comment spam, too. We’re old school, baby!


  5. It Never Rains but it Pours

    Sunshine and storm clouds over Bristol.

    Storm clouds can have a beauty all of their own. That is, once I shrug off the yearning glances towards the garden, currently under guard by “cow hair rain” as Chinese people would call it. Coming down in long, straight lines it promises a good drenching to all and sundry. Hiroshige illustrated it well in one of my favourite wood block prints, Evening Shower at Atake from his 100 famous views of Edo series. Bike riders beware; there must be an equation somewhere that quantifies why people on bikes get four times as wet in the rain.

    It’s pouring at work too and has been for a while. There’s too much work to handle and I’m actively looking for designers to work with. If you’re interested in our co–op, have a passion for user–centred design, Web standards and accessibility and are a dab hand at traditional graphic design feel free to get in touch. I’m especially interested in talented folks who are running their own business or thinking of doing so, want to further their exposure and may have been white–labeled by traditional agencies in the past. It’s one reason the agency model is broken — give me a shout if you want to know more.

    Apple iPhone.


    The iphone has poured out of the stores and into the blogosphere too. 1.4% of all blog posts mentioned the iphone on launch day according to Matthew Hulse of BlogPulse. With such unmitigated hype, the parasites have come out of the woodwork too; there’s poetic justice in the video of a woman who paid $800 for the first place in line to try and buy up all the iphones to sell on Ebay, only to be told she could only have one. Oops.

    Old security holes in AT&T’s voicemail service have come to the fore too (via Chris). With 500,000 sold in the first weekend, analysis of all kinds continues apace but somehow it seems like a self–fulfilling prophecy. Across the pond in an iphone–less world I feel a bizarre absence of envy. Back in January the excitement of my first iphone post revolved around a full version Safari running on a mobile device with great interface features. In real terms though without WiFi the experience will be rubbish, and apparently is. Yes, it looks beautiful; yes, the interface is fantastic fun but an actual feature I might use like the camera is flashless and only 2 mega pixels. However, looks and interface can change the world — and already has — so I’m still going to bite the Apple to see how we can best develop for Safari with the pinch and slide touch controls. Just cross your fingers that Europe gets 3G speed to fly by, not another EDGE to trip on.

    So, it’s been a wet and busy few days. In the midst of the commercial mayhem, efficacious product launches and cow hair rain, there have been moments of pure blue–sky inspiration. Hans Rosling’s incredible, amusing and profound presentation on solving world poverty at TED2007 stands out. If there’s one video you take time to see this week, that is my best pick not just for the solutions but as an example of the value of data visualisation in bringing problems to life, literally.