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REVIEW: Adobe Captivate Fills The eLearning Niche

els

I am sometimes hired to produce electronic learning (eLearning) products such as demonstrations, quizzes and “textbooks on a screen.” In the past I have used Flash and the other Creative Suite applications to create these products, mostly because there’s no other good application for building eLearning tools such as these. I’ve always thought Director would be a good choice for this, but Adobe has only updated the application twice since acquiring it from Macromedia and eLearning is not its primary focus.

I was naturally surprised when I stumbled upon news that Adobe had an application called Captivate and a suite called the eLearning Suite that did focus on eLearning, and just a few months ago Captivate was upgraded to version four (the eLearning Suite is a new product). I’ve been covering Adobe Creative Suite apps for years now and this was one suite that had escaped my attention! This is because it’s targeted to PC-using eLearning professionals and not available for Mac users, which I really can’t understand: Mac-loving designers are often called to produce eLearning products, and unfortunately most of them aren’t aware of the great capabilities the eLearning Suite offers. Fortunately, Adobe tells me a version of Captivate for Mac is already in the beta testing stages, so I hope to see a Mac version released in the future.

The sum of its parts

What struck me about the eLearning Suite was how similar it is to the Creative Suite 4: other than Captivate 4 and some other features, the eLearning Suite consists of CS4 applications including Flash, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Soundbooth, Bridge and other supporting applications, including Device Central for developing eLearning products for mobile devices. Acrobat 9 Pro and Presenter 7 (normally available in Acrobat 9 Pro Extended) are also included.

The eLearning Suite distinguishes itself from CS4 by a few unique applications and features:

  • Captivate 4,
  • A “Learning Interactions” library available in Flash CS4 Professional. This library includes movie clips for drag-and-drop questions including multiple choice, interactive, true/false, sequential, yes/no and several other formats. Each movie clip comes with detailed instructions so any intermediate Flash user should be able to handle them, but total novices may find them difficult.
  • CourseBuilder Extensions available in Dreamweaver CS4. The extension adds a “CourseBuilder Interaction” item to the Insert panel, which can create the same types of questions produced by Flash’s Learning Interactions but built with HTML and JavaScript. CourseBuilder Extensions is more robust and shows a gallery of question formats to choose from (and some formats have more than one layout and button design). CourseBuilder Extensions produces a lot of code for what it does but it works well for drag-and-drop functionality.

These features, along with the integration inherent between the CS4 products, help optimize the eLearning Suite for eLearning productions.

Adobe is assuming that eLearning producers are not web designers or Flash programmers, and drag-and-drop tools are needed for them to produce successful projects. I would agree with this if their assumption is true that the eLearning community is a separate market from the creative professional market. However, I believe the eLearning and creative professional markets are much closer than that. Designers and multimedia producers using CS4 now will be very comfortable with the eLearning Suite. It’s likely Captivate 5 will be developed for both Mac and Windows, and I hope Adobe Presenter will be as well—if so, it would be great to see the eLearning Suite become a part of the Creative Suite product family. I think it will happen—you heard it here first!

Two workflows

The eLearning Suite is a full complement of applications, so Adobe wisely emphasizes workflow as the key to successful eLearning production. There are two ways to do it:

  • Rapid authoring workflow revolves around Captivate 4 as the primary authoring tool (with Presenter 7 as an auxiliary tool) while the CS4 applications produce content such as graphics, audio and interactivity.
  • Traditional authoring workflow revolves around Flash CS4 Professional and Dreamweaver CS4 as the authoring tools for interactive and online eLearning products, complemented by their Learning Interactions and CourseBuilder Extensions. Captivate and the other CS4 apps are relegated to content production roles.

Both workflows deploy content through a variety of methods, and I think deployment is the killer feature of the eLearning Suite. It supports all the best formats for eLearning deployment, including SWF, HTML and interactive PDF (made possible by Acrobat 9’s SWF support). eLearning products can be deployed via CD-ROM, the World Wide Web, e-mail, mobile devices or local network. Even better, the eLearning Suite can aggregate and package content so it complies with the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), the standards for web-based eLearning. All this can be delivered with a learning management system (LMS) or an online presentation tool like Acrobat Connect Pro.

Adobe’s holistic approach to content deployment aligns well with today’s technology: companies and employees use many different kinds of devices to receive and send content. If the eLearning Suite focused on CD-ROM or online deployment I don’t think it would be as successful, but the convergence of Flash, PDF and online technologies makes it possible for learning to take place anywhere, on one homogenous platform, and in adherence to the industry standards represented by SCORM.

Captivate 4: Powerful application with familiar features

captivate-box

Working with Captivate 4 was an enjoyable experience, which is not always the case with applications designed only for Windows. Captivate 4 is a power application thanks to elements borrowed from several familiar applications:

  • PowerPoint: The slide-based structure and video/audio support makes Captivate a smart choice for presentation design as well as eLearning production.
  • Flash: Each slide has a timeline so elements can be interactive (and should be if successful learning is the goal).
  • Presenter: Presenter is basically a PowerPoint-to-Flash application anyway, and Captivate imports PowerPoint in the same way.
  • Acrobat: The interface design is mostly influenced by PowerPoint and Flash, but the main toolbar has the same look and feel as that in Acrobat 9.

captivate-screen

The round-trip PowerPoint functionality is excellent: users can import PowerPoint presentations and add content and interactivity not available in the PowerPoint application. I expected a method to export back to PowerPoint, but it seems this is not the case. The next best thing is a dynamic link between Captivate and PowerPoint projects, so elements of the project design can remain in PowerPoint and be updated as needed. However, I’m not sure why anyone would do this because Captivate’s functionality and ease of use is superior.

The coolest feature in Captivate 4 is on-the-fly converting of slide notes to speech! Only two voice are available (“Kate” and “Paul”) and they must be downloaded separately from the Adobe website, but it is a thrill to hear your notes read aloud. The voices are electronic, much better than MacInTalk’s monotone but not up to par with a real human voice—but it’s a helpful feature nonetheless. Paul’s voice seems a little more natural than Kate’s, which is ironic because my clients tend to want female voices in their presentations and eLearning materials.

captivate-reviewer

Captivate 4 includes a Send For Review feature to make it easier for instructional designers and subject matter experts to collaborate on eLearning products. This is facilitated by an AIR-based Captivate Reviewer app so collaborators can view Captivate projects and comment as needed. Adobe has really focused on big-picture improvements over the last few years, such as collaboration and productivity improvements, and the good news is that such improvements are applicable to a wide range of products including Captivate 4.

captivate-timeline

Audio and video is very important to Captivate and the eLearning Suite. Soundbooth CS4 ships with the eLearning Suite and helps produce audio, while video can be recorded on-screen within Captivate. Movie clips, including FLV and QuickTime, can be imported easily and Flash CS4 Professional’s video skins are available. I had no problems importing audio and video, which is to be expected. The one thing I did miss was a video application comparable to Soundbooth CS4.

The other major feature in Captivate 4 is the Table of Contents and Aggregator tools, which are handy for larger eLearning projects. These two tools create a table of contents for easier navigation and/or combine modular projects into one whole. Most of my eLearning projects are not large enough for the Aggregator but the Table of Contents is awesome—in a few clicks I can do what takes me an hour or two in Flash! I wish I could preview the table of contents within Captivate—the project must be published before the table of contents can be seen.

Widgets, mice, questions, interactivity

Captivate 4 comes with a bunch of widgets and other interactive elements, so an interactive eLearning experience can be produced even if a user doesn’t want to monkey with audio and video. The Insert > Mouse command inserts a mouse cursor on screen and can be animated to show movement and clicks. The Quiz menu can create and customize several types of questions, and it pretty much offers the same questions as the Learning Interactions and CourseBuilder Extensions. I prefer to add questions here since I adopted the rapid authoring workflow and most of my eLearning work is done in Captivate. However, I’m not thrilled by the default question designs—part of this is because I’m not thrilled by the way designs look in PC-only apps in general.

The other interactive feature available in Captivate 4 is Flash-based widgets, and they really make a Captivate project look good. Widgets include buttons, check boxes and radio buttons, combo and list boxes, a dynamic certificate and even a jumbled word puzzle. Some of these widgets will not please designers who want a really slick design, but drag-and-drop users will really love them. My big complaint is that widgets don’t seem to preview properly within Captivate: I had to publish my projects in order to test them. A “Live View” feature similar to that in Dreamweaver CS4 would be a great feature for Captivate 5.

Conclusion

Captivate 4 is an anomaly in the Adobe product universe—an application that employs technology from several CS4 applications but doesn’t exist in the Creative Suite family. Adobe had to build an eLearning Suite around Captivate and populate it with CS4 apps. I believe this is the wrong thinking: even though eLearning professionals may not be creative professionals, there are many creative professionals who build eLearning products and can benefit from Captivate’s broad toolset and ease of use. I think the release of Captivate for Mac will draw a lot of these creative professionals toward the eLearning Suite.

If you produce eLearning products as part of your job, Captivate 4 is a strong recommendation. Designers who know their way around CS4 should also consider the eLearning Suite, though for most designers and agencies it doesn’t make sense to carry CS4 and the eLearning Suite—most of the applications overlap. I’ll be watching this new suite closely and will be very interested to see how it evolves in the next few years.

Adobe Captivate 4
Adobe Systems
US$799/299 upgrade
Rating: 9/10

Adobe eLearning Suite
Adobe Systems
US$1,799/599 upgrade
Rating: 9/10

REVIEW: Corel Painter 11 Produces Beautiful Work, Makes Small Improvements

painter11box

Corel Painter is one of the few applications that is a gold standard in the design industry but is not produced by Adobe, which is refreshing to me. The new Corel Painter 11, produced two years after its previous version, arrives in a small environmentally-friendly package and comes with a batch of new features, both large and small, that together make Painter 11 an interesting upgrade.

New hard media variants

painter-markers

Painter has always boasted a huge number of brushes and media, but Painter 11 adds to the heap with 40 more hard media variants in a variety of media including acrylic, chalk, colored pencil, watercolor, pastels and pencils. Ten of these variants are in the new Markers category, which is worth exploring; I particularly enjoyed the Leaky Marker and Dry Chisel Tip Marker, and the Fine Tip Marker made some cool effects at larger sizes. The Markers are designed to emulate rendering markers.

painter-hardmedia

A Hard Media palette has also been added to the gob of Brush Control palettes, offering control over tip shape and behavior when given varying degrees of tilt and velocity. The palette performs perfectly and gives more control than most users will ever need; the one thing I wish it had is a reset function. I also wonder if 20 Brush Control palettes is too many. Corel should consider the usability difficulties inherent in such a large palette interface and perhaps streamline the group.

One more thing: I am so excited to see Painter 11 now organizes its brush category menu in alphabetical order!

Selecting and transforming

Painter 11 Transform tool
Painter 11’s Transform tool gives users the same transform functions found in Photoshop and other image editing apps.

The other two major features added to Painter are the Polygonal Selection and Transform tools. Painter is arriving late to the Polygonal Selection party: Photoshop and other graphics applications has had such a tool for years. Painter has traditionally focused on recreating the painting experience, but I think Corel has realized users also need the selection and transform features found in other applications. Thus, the Polygonal Selection tool makes its debut—along with the Transform tool, which functions a little differently than Photoshop’s Free Transform function but does all the same things. Here’s a tip: hold Option when you select the Transform tool from the toolbar, and Painter will create a copy of your selection or layer and transform that, leaving the original untouched.

A variety of productivity and compatibility enhancements

My reviews of Adobe’s CS4 applications grappled with the dilemma of whether an upgrade succeeds by its new killer features or its small improvements in efficiency. I have always expected upgrades to wow users with great new features, but CS4 focused more on productivity and Adobe has been promoting this as “the new killer feature.” Painter is a mature application and, if Painter 11 is any indication, Corel may be pursuing the same productivity goals. Many of Painter 11’s new and enhanced features are small tweaks designed to make things easier:

  • The Colors palette now includes the controls previously found in the Color Info palette, and it can be enlarged up to 800 pixels wide for easier color selection. I’m very glad they made this change, because the small color triangle made it hard to select an exact color. I’m also glad to see one palette do the job of two. However, Painter 11 also has new Color Variability and Color Expression palettes that creates a net gain for color palettes.
  • The Mixer palette has been similarly enhanced so it can be enlarged like the Colors palette. The Painter documentation also says users can add mixer swatches to the lineup of swatches on the Mixer palette, but I was only able to add mixer swatches to the Color Sets palette.
  • The keyboard has become a more useful tool in Painter 11. The arrow keys adjust the saturation of hues selected in the Colors palette.
  • The messy Color Managment dialog box from Painter X has been redesigned into something much simpler and effective. Painter 11 requires just an RGB and CMYK profile (Painter X managed five profiles for a variety of hardware and colorspaces) and the profile handling options are in plain view (in Painter X, users had to click an unmarked icon). Painter 11’s color management options are still no match for Photoshop’s, and there is no method to create custom settings, but it is an improvement. One more improvement: unlike Painter X, Painter 11 allows access to the Color Management dialog box without an active document open.

Color Management box comparison image
Comparing the Color Management dialog boxes from Painter X (top) and Painter 11 (bottom) shows a major change—from confusion to relative clarity.

Painter 11 is also compatible with more third-party technology and image formats:

  • Painter 11 understands color profiles in a variety of image formats, including PSD, TIFF and JPEG. It also open PNG files, which Painter X could not do.
  • Tablet pen tilt is better understood by Painter 11, adding realism to digital brushstrokes.
  • Painter 11 is optimized to run on Intel Mac, PowerPC Mac and Windows Vista PC computers.
  • According to the documentation, Painter 11 has improved its handling of Photoshop (PSD) files, with support for layer masks, alpha channels, layer merge modes and layer sets/groups. I tested this with a PSD file I used for a retractable banner project, and it seems both Painter X and Painter 11 understood the file perfectly except for layer styles, Smart Objects and text layers (which are rasterized).

Conclusion

Painter 11 is a solid upgrade, with a couple major new features and several smaller improvements designed to enhance efficiency and third-party compatibility. Those using Painter IX or older should consider the upgrade: for US$199, you’ll get a good assortment of new tools and compatibility improvements. Painter X users have a tougher choice because I don’t believe there is a big difference between Painter X and Painter 11, and in any case a $200 upgrade in today’s economic climate may be a harder sell for any user. A free trial of Painter 11 is available at www.corel.com so I would suggest you try before you buy.

If you have never used Painter before and are considering Painter 11, I would heartily recommend it if you enjoy painting and drawing. Painter has always offered the best painterly experience found on a computer, and Painter 11 is an improvement over its predecessor.

Painter 11
Corel
US$399/$199
Rating: 8/10

BOOK REVIEW: “Do Good Design” Not A Typical Design Book

dogooddesign

At a publishing company I used to work for, I was asked to produce an invitation for an award ceremony honoring community activists. I’ve always been bothered to the point of activism by the sheer volume of waste paper and media our society produces daily, so I had the idea to design an invitation that was stamped upon waste cardboard rather than printed on pristine paper. Unfortunately, someone at the company didn’t like that idea and the project was given to another, less maverick designer.

Maybe I was onto something after all.

Do Good Design: How Designers Can Change The World is a unique book. It’s the only graphic design book I can think of that considers the ethical ramifications of design and treats it as a tool for good or evil—and argues that our world is suffering from serious maladies brought about by the subversion of design for evil purposes. Almost no designers think about such things—they’re too busy learning the new features of Photoshop CS4 or updating their LinkedIn profiles to get more clients and more money. Perhaps that’s why I think this book is an essential read for everyone in the industry.

The big problems: overconsumption and the end of the world

Author David B. Berman, who has become known as an advocate of “good design” in his native Ontario, believes graphic design does far more than anyone realizes to shape our perceptions of the world and control our behaviors, and in the past century designers have unwittingly contributed to a world of overconsumption and environmental destruction that will eventually lead to an unsustainable way of life. Exhibit Number One in Berman’s argument of the power of design is the Palm Beach County ballot used in the 2000 U.S. election: this ballot was so poorly designed that many people mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore—swinging that county’s vote to George W. Bush and setting the United States up for eight years of war, death and outrage.

Buy the book if only for the international perspective

Berman traveled to a wide variety of countries around the world while writing Do Good Design, and I encourage American designers to buy this book if only to learn more about what American graphic design, branding and lifestyle are doing to the world. Did you know…?:

  • Thousands of Third World schools, orphanages and public signage sport the Coca-Cola logo. It costs Coca-Cola only $200 to brand an entire village.
  • Americans know Hugo Boss as the high-end clothing company. Most Americans don’t know that Hugo Boss himself designed the Nazi SS and Hitler Youth uniforms during World War II.
  • Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, is so large and heavy—700,000 tons—that it’s believed to have increased the instance of earthquakes across Taipei.

Berman’s thesis is that the drive for overbranding and overconsumption is due to graphic design, in particular American design and product development. Do Good Design looks at the thesis in a fascinating way, with around-the-globe observations and plenty of preaching. If you want to remain in your bubble of preconceptions about design and the world, don’t read this book.

A call for activism

For Berman, it’s not enough for readers to simply read Do Good Design and go back to the usual work for the usual clients. The last section of the book is a toolkit of sustainable design practices, manifestos from various organizations and a general push to become a “good design” activist. This is going to make some readers uncomfortable, but that’s what makes this book unique. There are a variety of small actions mentioned that will move things in the right direction. Others actions—such as pressing for sustainable design in the workplace—are more complicated. Berman thinks bosses and company owners will work with designers, but I think they’re just as likely to fire you if you start advocating changes they don’t want.

Do Good Design is a hard book to rate because it’s not necessarily perfect: it can be preachy and readers who don’t like being pressed to change may not like the last 30 pages. However, Berman’s message is too important to ignore and I encourage every designer to read this book and maybe change the world. My rating reflects the importance of Berman’s message.

Do Good Design: How Designers Can Change The World
David B. Berman
Published by New Riders and AIGA
Rating: 10/10
US$24.99

BOOK REVIEW: Photoshop CS4: The Missing Manual

missingmanual

Who misses the printed manuals that use to come with Adobe’s applications? I used to read those things, but now they’re only online. The last Adobe Creative Suite product that shipped with manuals was CS3 Production Premium, which came in a large, satisfying box full of manuals. Well, it seems David Pogue missed the manuals and began the “Missing Manuals” line of books designed to fill in for those manuals.

Lesa Snider King has written Photoshop CS4: The Missing Manual and it’s worthy of the title. The book is over 750 pages and has a massive amount of information about almost all of Photoshop CS4’s functions. Lesa does a good job of writing clearly yet with a little humor, which is easy to overdo. The interesting thing about Photoshop CS4: The Missing Manual is that it’s not just a dry technical manual but also combined with some simple tutorials that illustrate some of Photoshop CS4’s best and most important features. These tutorials are relatively simple and aren’t as satisfying as the advanced things you’ll find in books like Adobe’s Classroom in a Book series, but for beginner and intermediate users they work just fine—and that’s the audience this books serves most.

When is a manual not a manual?

When I first started reading this book for review, I had to decide whether to judge this book as a “tips and tricks” book or a true manual, which has a different purpose and structure. I decided to judge it as a manual, and in that regard Photoshop CS4: The Missing Manual has some gaps. I think every good manual must make it easy to find out how to operate something when it’s needed; however, this book doesn’t group things together to make them easy to find. I went to the index to learn more about the Adjustments panel, one of Photoshop CS4’s most important new features. I learned the panel itself is given little notice because its functions are explained throughout the book in various sections. A user needing to decipher the Adjustments panel’s icons would be hard-pressed to do so with this book.

Not everything about Photoshop CS4 is covered in the book. Some things like Color Settings are mysteriously not covered at all, which I think is a shame. Others are covered but maybe not as thoroughly as the online Adobe help docs. But most Photoshop CS4 tools and commands are indeed covered, so I would bet Photoshop CS4: The Missing Manual stands as the most comprehensive “missing manual” in the bookstore today. It’s not perfect, and it’s not exactly a manual for good or for bad, but it’s still a fine resource.

Photoshop CS4: The Missing Manual
Lesa Snider King
Published by Pogue Press/O’Reilly
US$49.99
Rating: 8/10

BOOK REVIEW: The Hot Shoe Diaries Enlightens and Engages

hotshoediaries

Last year, “Legendary Magazine Photographer” Joe McNally published The Moment It Clicks, which was hyped as one of the greatest photography books ever published. I thought it was a great book, but not perfect—the handling of terminology bothered me, and I had hoped for more writing in a book over 250 pages. But that was in 2008, and this year Joe has published a new book, The Hot Shoe Diaries. Maybe it’s because I’ve had my head down the past few months working for my clients, but this book seems to have had less hype thrown at it—which is ironic, because I think The Hot Shoe Diaries surpasses its year-old predecessor.

More text, more stories, more enlightenment

The Moment It Clicks focuses on a relatively broad collection of photography stories and insights; The Hot Shoe Diaries focuses on lighting, and that focus really brings the book together. The first section of the book is an excellent survey of lighting equipment, settings and Joe’s own secret recipes for success in the field (look for his camera grip technique on page 40). The rest of the book presents a variety of Joe’s stories about lighting problems and solutions he’s encountered—everything from one-light jobs to assignments requiring lots of lights (up to 50!). You’ll also find a small appendix that covers some settings on the Nikon speedlights, but The Nikon Creative Lighting System by Mike Hagen is a far more comprehensive resource.

The Hot Shoe Diaries seems to have a lot more text than The Moment It Clicks, and the stories are just as compelling. I think the focus on lighting actually helped Joe bring together a more interesting collection of tales that really teach readers something great. And I think it’s interesting that there are no footnotes as there were in The Moment It Clicks—I didn’t even notice they were missing.

Something should be said about Joe’s writing style, which is a treat to read but might put off a few people. I prefer a clear, concise writing style with some humor, and sometimes I shake my head a little bit at Joe’s constant use of vernacular, pop culture references and otherwise goofy lines (“Say hello to my li’l frenn!”, “word editors who wouldn’t know a good photograph even if crawled up their zeppelin-sized pantaloons and bit them in their ample buttocks”). Writers normally avoid clichés, but in that second phrase Joe is recharging two clichés with words normally found in children’s books. Despite all this, I still think Joe’s books are fun to read without quite getting too annoying—and anyone who references The Uncanny X-Men at Photoshop World deserves a pass!

Good design, plenty of content and essential focus are what makes The Hot Shoe Diaries a must-have for photographers who use lighting beyond their camera’s pop-up flash. This book does more than give us some cool Joe McNally tales—it gives us a long glimpse into Joe’s working world, complete with camera settings, equipment recommendations and detailed lighting setups for some of his most compelling images. This is where great lighting really happens.

The Hot Shoe Diaries
Joe McNally
Published by New Riders
US$39.99
Rating: 10/10

BOOK REVIEW: YouTube: An Insider’s Guide to Climbing the Charts

youtube

Producing successful online social media is such a conundrum—producing quality content is one thing, but how do you create something that the online community will make viral? The stakes are higher now that marketing vice-presidents have noticed the power of online social media: companies are producing promotional videos for YouTube and Facebook profiles, hoping people will latch onto them and adopt the brand promise.

So how do you capture this kind of viral devotion? In the case of YouTube, it might make sense to buy YouTube: An Insider’s Guide to Climbing the Charts. It’s written by a YouTube heavyweight (Alan Lastufka, once one of the 100 Most Subscribed Comedians on YouTube) and an expert on do-it-yourself video production and promotion (Michael W. Dean). Lisa Donovan, a “YouTube star” who parlayed her video bits into a short run on MadTV, says this is “the only YouTube book worth getting.” So the pedigree is there for YouTube: An Insider’s Guide to be a true classic, with unique techniques you won’t find anywhere else.

Proven principles for success

The truth, which the book demonstrates very well, is that the path to success is really based on two simple principles: quality content and quality promotion. YouTube: An Insider’s Guide devotes a lot of pages to storytelling, video direction, shooting, editing and the fundamentals of producing a video people will want to watch. The information in this section is solid but I didn’t really learn anything I didn’t know already—readers who are already experienced producers will not be particularly thrilled by this section.

Fortunately, the majority of pages are dedicated to Alan Lastufka’s deconstruction of YouTube and techniques for YouTube-specific promotion. I learned that YouTube has its own culture and community of users, and by adopting the community one can end up being adopted themselves. Key techniques such as commenting, leveraging third-party social media, the YouTube Partner program and video responses are all covered; very few are covered in depth, but there isn’t a whole lot of depth to begin with. Alan says just enough to make readers dangerous with YouTube.

The author’s rants

YouTube: An Insider’s Guide falls short in some respects. I liked Alan’s writing style, which was authoritative yet fairly informal, but Michael Dean sometimes came across as somewhat…odd. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in Chapter 14, “Closing Arguments,” which has almost nothing to do with YouTube and everything to do with Dean’s ramblings about what’s wrong with the Internet, why C-SPAN is better than any news show, what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with “The Man,” and how to life life right among other topics. Now I’m all for personal manifestos, but not in a book like this. The other thing that bothered me a little was the book’s dependence on a handful of YouTube celebrities (Lisa Donovan, Kevin Nalty, Hank Green and a few others) to show the celebrity potential in YouTube. It seems the same seven “celebrities” are discussed over and over, and I had heard of none of them until I read YouTube: An Insider’s Guide. I’m not sure “celebrity” is an accurate word to describe these YouTube users, and it makes me wonder if true fame is achievable within the confines of YouTube.

Conclusion

I recommend YouTube: An Insider’s Guide for anyone looking to start up and promote a YouTube channel with quality content—a casual YouTube user could get some good information by reading this book as well, but it is really written for content creators. There aren’t many books out on the market about YouTube, and this has perhaps the most knowledgeable authors of the bunch so it’s a great buy.

YouTube: An Insider’s Guide to Climbing the Charts
Alan Lastufka and Michael W. Dean
Published by O’Reilly
Rating: 8/10
US$29.99

BOOK REVIEW: The Nikon Creative Lighting System

nikoncls

After reviewing The Hot Shoe Diaries, I have lighting on my mind and another lighting book to review: Mike Hagen’s The Nikon Creative Lighting System. Unlike Diaries, this book is a nuts-and-bolts compendium on Nikon’s lighting gear combined with chapters on how to get the most out of the gear and case studies for real-world instruction. It’s very well done and I think photographers working with Nikon speedlights should consider picking it up.

Definitive directions

What I like (and don’t like) about this book is the extensive coverage of Nikon’s speedlights, including the SB-600, the discontinued SB-800 and its replacement, the SB-900. Also covered in detail are the Speedlight Commander Kit (R1C1) and Speedlight Remote Kit (R1). The bulk of the book is devoted to the operation of these five products, which is good for those who sometimes need instructions for all these products in the field. However, it’s not such a good thing if you only own one speedlight—the rest of the pages are fairly useless in this case. I’ve owned a SB-800 for a few years and just picked up a SB-900, and I’m using this book to help master my new gadget.

The rest of the book—which doesn’t constitute many pages—covers general flash knowledge such as flash theory, how to successfully use wireless flash, white balance, using gels and case studies that really help apply the theory to practice. These case studies are really helpful because they are written so each one applies to a particular kind of photography (travel, portraits [outdoor and indoor], events) and lighting setup (one light with cable, pop-up flash, commander and remote, multiple remotes and more). However, while they are helpful they do suffer from a lack of space (each scenario has only a few paragraphs) and might not necessarily present that one scenario a reader really wants to figure out. For a real wealth of real-world experience, The Hot Shoe Diaries is a much better selection.

Take it for what it is

The Nikon Creative Lighting System may not devote enough space for using flashes in the field, but as a comprehensive overview of the Nikon Creative Lighting System it is well-done—clear, well-written and complete. Some readers may feel a glorified book of instructions is not what they need, and if that’s the case then steer clear of this one and use the instruction books that came with the products. But for that particular type of reader who uses several Nikon flash products and can use a book that covers it all, The Nikon Creative Lighting System is very well-done.

The Nikon Creative Lighting System
Mike Hagen
Nikonians Press/Rocky Nook
US$34.95
Rating: 9/10

BOOK REVIEW: Deke McClelland’s Photoshop CS4 and InDesign CS4 one-on-one Books

id-oneonone

ps-oneonone

Deke McClelland is in my opinion one of the best instructors out there for Photoshop and other creative applications. He might also be the funniest (sorry, Scott Kelby). So I was glad to have the opportunity to read two recent books from his popular “one-on-one” series, Adobe InDesign CS4 one-on-one and Adobe Photoshop CS4 one-on-one. I think both of them are excellent resources for novice designers who are learning these two applications.

Both for beginners only

I think the very best books in the industry (or any books for that matter) are great because they are essential for beginners and experts alike. The one-on-one books don’t quite qualify in this regard, because they really are for beginners and novices. Expert users of InDesign and Photoshop don’t necessarily need these books unless they haven’t trained in a long while and feel they need to improve their basic and advanced skills.

As books for beginner and intermediate users, the one-on-one books are excellent. I had heard there were errors in these books but I didn’t find any myself. The layouts are well-done and Deke’s writing style is as loose and fun as ever without ruining the learning experience. The same goes for the videos included in the CD-ROM with each book: you don’t get the face time with Deke that you do in his more extensive videos with Lynda.com, but you get over four hours of tutorial footage with each book and it’s all narrated by Deke. These one-on-one books are a great value even at $50 each.

Whither CS4?

A major complaint I have with both these books is the lack of focus on features new to the CS4 versions of InDesign and Photoshop. Many of these features are certainly covered in the books but there is little indication to readers that they’re new to CS4. I wouldn’t expect the one-on-one books to talk all about new CS4 features (for that I recommend Ben Willmore’s Up to Speed series, one of my favorites) but there’s not even an icon to draw attention to CS4 features or a page at the beginning of the books to outline what’s new. I think flagging the CS4-specific information would have been a big help to all readers.

Not comprehensive but close

One more thing: both books do a great job providing all the essential information about InDesign and Photoshop but it’s not complete. In the Photoshop CS4 book, things such as HDR, Camera Raw, Photo Filter adjustment layers and the Lens Distortion filter among others were all missed or provided relatively little coverage. The InDesign CS4 book seemed better but some of the really advanced material such as GREP was not covered much. For beginners’ books such as these, I am not bothered that such advanced stuff was glossed over in favor of more essential features and techniques. But buyers should know that some topics, such as Camera Raw, are much better served by other books (for that topic I would recommend Real World Camera Raw with Adobe Photoshop CS3 by Jeff Schewe and the late Bruce Fraser).

Conclusion

Both Adobe Photoshop CS4 one-on-one and Adobe InDesign CS4 one-on-one are excellent books for beginners learning the trade: the quality of training in the pages and on the CD-ROM is very good. Those who are very familiar with Adobe InDesign CS3 one-on-one and Adobe Photoshop CS3 one-on-one may not need to purchase these as well—other than the CS4-related material, the books are probably very similar.

Adobe InDesign CS4 one-on-one
Rating: 9/10
Adobe Photoshop CS4 one-on-one
Rating: 8/10
Deke McClelland
Published by deke Press/O’Reilly
US$49.99

BOOK REVIEW: Universal Design for Web Applications

univdesign-webapps

Wendy Chisholm is co-editor of the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0; Matt May is an accessibility engineer at Adobe and leader of the Web Standards Project Accessibility Task Force. With credentials like theirs, their book Universal Design for Web Applications has all the makings of an essential resource for web designers and developers who need their web applications to be accessible for everyone—and who doesn’t need their web applications to be accessible?

Lean but worth reading

This book is published by O’Reilly, and it seems to me that O’Reilly puts out books that are either (1) small and compact or (2) large and dense. Universal Design is one of the former, at less than 200 small pages. I actually prefer these to the larger tomes, and in this case it works great because the book is full of useful knowledge. The book’s title suggests it’s about web application design but most of it pertains to HTML/XHTML structure, forms and tables, scripts and some Ajax—all of which are just as pertinent for web designers if not more so. If you build websites for a living—but not necessarily web applications—then Universal Design is just as valuable a book for your bookshelf.

The information in this book is fairly comprehensive but not complete—the sections on structure and accessible code are fairly thorough but I wish there was more written about the process of creating such code, which is in the final chapter and only takes up a small portion of the book. It’s pretty good but experienced web designers who know next to nothing about universal design may need a little more help getting in the habit of building accessible web applications. But with the first couple chapters, which introduce and promote the concept of universal design, those in the field will have a pretty good idea of why it’s important and how to approach it on a basic level.

It’s ironic to me that web designers and developers are often manic about validation—they’ll proudly show their sites are XHTML-compliant and pooh-pooh those that aren’t—but sometimes don’t know much about all the factors involved in universal design, which is probably more important to their clientele. I would recommend any web designer or developer to pick up Universal Design for Web Applications, supplement it with online material from W3C and other accessibility resources, and change the way they construct their web products.

Universal Design for Web Applications
Wendy Chisholm and Matt May
Published by O’Reilly
US$34.99
Rating: 9/10

BOOK REVIEW: Neuro Web Design

Neuro Web Design cover
Neuro Web Design cover

Very few web design books I’ve seen explore the intersection of web design and psychology, which is why Neuro Web Design by Dr. Susan Weinschenk is such an interesting read. The book is not about usability or how people interact with websites; rather, it’s about why people interact with websites in terms of basic rational and emotional impulses. The book’s subtitle, “What makes them click?”, sums it up nicely.

Steeped in research

Neuro Web Design reads a lot like a textbook, citing various psychological studies that support a variety of observations such as:

  • Human beings’ need to reciprocate when they feel indebted,
  • Social validation as pressure to belong,
  • The self-centeredness of individuals,
  • If something seems unavailable, people want it even more,
  • Too many choices actually make things difficult for the chooser, and
  • The unconscious mind processes information as stories and pictures.

There are several more observations, but I won’t reveal all of this book’s insights. Each chapter focuses on one particular observation or rule, cites studies that illustrate how these rules operate in the real world, and then apply the rules to examples of websites. The idea is to control websites’ users’ behavior by taking advantage of the impulses we naturally share. It’s excellent material and I really got involved in reading this book, mostly because I’ve never read anything like it before. Usability books such as Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think come close, but Neuro Web Design is more about natural impulses and less about usability.

Almost a book for website planners

My one criticism of Neuro Web Design is that there isn’t as much attention paid to web design as I would like. The majority of pages are devoted to the psychological material and in some chapters only a couple pages are used to apply the material to the field of web design.

Also, even though “web design” is discussed there is actually very little coverage of real design matters such as layout, color and typography. Neuro Web Design covers matters of web architecture, such as why it’s important to have product reviews (because people will want to do what others do) or try to sell fully loaded products first (because people fear losing anything). Such matters are on a different level of web design, and some web designers actually get little or no say at this stage of development—such things are sometimes decided upon by sales and marketing managers.

Conclusion

Neuro Web Design is an important book for any web designer’s bookshelf, and I think it applies to design in general as well. That’s partly because there is not a lot of web design-specific material in the book, which is a shame—this 150-page book could have really benefitted from 50 more pages about web design. If Dr.Weinschenk were to partner with a A-list web designer and produce a second edition of this book, I think it would be a classic.

Neuro Web Design
Dr. Susan Weinschenk
Published by New Riders
Rating: 9/10
US$24.99