Tag Archives: review

REVIEW: Bokeh Makes A Mean Bokeh

bokeh

At the end of last year Alien Skin Software released Bokeh, a Photoshop plug-in designed to recreate the “bokeh” effect that’s commonly used when photographers want to blur or tone down a background. I was a beta-tester for the software and was included in the Case Studies page for some Bokeh-improved images of mine. But now I have to remove by beta tester hat and put on my reviewer’s hat, and what I see in Bokeh is a very handy plug-in for photographers retouching with Photoshop.

The Bokeh effect

Bokeh can apply a wide variety of effects to an image:

  • Radial and planar bokeh, applying the effect in a circular or gradient fashion.
  • Aperture effects: areas affected with bokeh can reveal a diaphragm shape of anywhere from three to 11 blades, or a circular or heart-shaped diaphragm. Blades can also be curved inward or outward.
  • Bokeh can have varying amounts of creaminess.
  • Highlight boosting, which can create hot spots if you’re not careful but punches up the image pretty well if you’re judicious with the settings.
  • Vignettes: vignette shape, color, intensity, size and feather are all controllable in Bokeh.

If you’re a photographer, the vast majority of your work with Bokeh will be in creating true bokeh: soft backgrounds, sharp foreground or subject, and possibly some aperture effects or vignetting. For this purpose Bokeh does its job exceedingly well: everything I’ve seen Bokeh produce looks like it was photographed that way. If you’re a mix of photographer, artist and designer like I am, you might find Bokeh useful for more than just recreating bokeh. I found that with a combination of colored vignetting and creamy bokeh I was able to age photos in a very nice way. For the bald eagle photo you see below, I played around with the aperture diaphragm settings to create some five-sided stars. A blue vignette and a little highlighting on the eagle’s head (done in Photoshop—Bokeh can’t do such spot retouching) made the image into a patriotic one.

This bald eagle image was created with Bokeh's standard effects plus some out-of-the-box application of vignette and other effects.
This bald eagle image was created with Bokeh's standard effects plus some out-of-the-box application of vignette and other effects.

More flexibility

If you’re hoping to use Bokeh for artistic effects like I did, be prepared to run into a few obstacles. Bokeh is designed for photographers, and so the plug-in isn’t designed to create a wide variety of effects. I loved using the “Heart of Hearts” diaphragm shape—it’s included with the plug-in—but there’s no way to create other shapes unless they’re based on a circle or conventional bladed diaphragm. Also, Bokeh cannot do anything to an empty layer, which would have been helpful if one wanted to mask or modify it later. Bokeh does allow you to duplicate the current layer when applying bokeh (click the “Create Output in New Layer Above Current” checkbox) but it flattens the effect with a copy of the original.

Conclusion

Bokeh is another well-designed plug-in from Alien Skin and for photographers who need to recreate true bokeh it’s an excellent tool. I recommend it for any photographer who falls in this category. Creative photographers and designers who want to play with the effects will find a lot of useful tools in Bokeh but keep in mind the plug-in was not really created for this kind of work and there’s sometimes more flexible ways in Photoshop to create the same effects. But Bokeh can do a lot, and I know from personal experience that it can make good photos great.

Bokeh
Alien Skin Software
Rating: 9/10
US$199.00

BOOK REVIEW: A Project Guide to UX Design

UX Design Guide cover

A Project Guide to UX Design is a wonderful book about an aspect of web design that is both essential to success but a murky concept to grasp. I’m talking about “user experience design”, UX, which is the discipline of incorporating good usability in websites and web applications so site owners and users get good use out of the product. I was very excited to get my copy because CSS and Photoshop are both important things to know for the web but too many times a website just isn’t user-friendly, and it doesn’t matter how cool a website looks if it doesn’t serve its users.

Process, not design

I was somewhat disappointed by the book because “design” is in the title and I expected to learn some good usability principles, but most of this book covers elements of the web architecture process:

  • Working with clients to handle expectations, set up payment schedules, define development tasks and responsibilities and more
  • Analyzing the current web product and conducting user research and testing, including persona development
  • Web architecture, including site maps, task flows, wireframes and prototypes

I think user experience design should include user interface design, but in this book relatively little attention was given to details of user interface design. What is the best way to design a web form? Should images be used sparingly in this era of broadband? I wish this book spent more than a small fraction of its pages on such design questions, but I also think the book’s content is important material that belongs on a web designer’s bookshelf.

Hard answers for complex questions

Sometimes I was surprised by the strict advice given about topics that really have no right or wrong answers. This was particularly noticeable in Chapter 3, which covers proposals. I’m not sure such a topic belongs in a book about user experience design, but in any case proposals and business negotiations are usually malleable and influenced by the professional and the client. But co-author Russ Unger has firm views about the subject, such as the view that projects should never be paid 50% up front and 50% upon completion. I’ve actually used this arrangement for a variety of projects and it has worked well for my clients and myself. The book is not always unyielding in this way, and I’m glad it provides some quality methods for developing paperwork and proposals. However, some of these methods may be difficult for readers to change in their own situation—or they may not have the authority to change them at all.

A good book nonetheless

I regret that more of the book is not devoted to design, but it’s still a good read. Ironically, I’m particularly impressed by the book design, which is clean and clear. The sections on wireframing and prototyping excite me because they provide a comprehensive guide to building webpage structure on paper before a line of code is written. Again, different methods work for different people and the chapter on wireframing may seem overly complicated to some. I am also happy to see the authors bring in a variety of other people to comment, write sidebars or even entire chapters. The book is more diverse thanks to this variety of viewpoints, and other books I’ve reviewed recently have used a similar tactic.

A Project Guide to UX Design may be better titled A Project Guide to UX Architecture or something similar, because some web designers may be disappointed to learn this book is part freelance business guide, part web architecture best practices. It’s still a fine book that I would recommend for a web designer or developer who wants to improve their web architecture skills.

A Project Guide to UX Design
Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler
Published by New Riders
US$34.99
Rating: 8/10

REVIEW: After Effects CS4 Tightens Things Up

aecs4-box

I’m an occasional user of After Effects, mostly for web design projects—I’ve restricted my daily work to design and illustration for print and the web, and advanced video projects are something I don’t do yet. However, I am running the CS4 Master Collection including After Effects CS4, and I figured a review from my perspective might help those looking at the application from a similar vantage point.

The After Effects CS4 upgrade is something of a mixed bag for me, though it’s clear the new version is superior to the version before it. Many of its improvements focus on integrating it with other CS4 applications and/or increasing efficiency and productivity. There is one new tool and several effects also new to CS4 but those who are looking for a lot of new technologies might be disappointed. Still, it’s an excellent application and a good buy.

First things first: performance

After Effects CS3 had difficulty managing system resources, especially multiple core processors, so I wanted to touch upon this first. After Effects CS4 is generally an improvement over CS3 when it comes to handling resources and handling multiple cores in particular. CS4 has a “Memory & Multiprocessing” preference pane that gives the user control over how much RAM and processing power is available to the application. It also allows rendering of multiple frames simultaneously, which is possible with multiple CPUs.

Unlike many video professionals working with dual quad-core monsters, I’m using a MacBook Pro running with two 2.33GHz processors and 3GB of RAM. To test performance I rendered a project I did a couple years ago that had a particularly tough time rendering with After Effects CS3. This time around the rendering finished with no problems. I rendered the same project with the multi-frame rendering available in Memory & Multiprocessing, but it actually increased the render time substantially (4:35 versus 3:24). After Effects CS4 does recognize and employ multiple cores, so users with four- or eight-core machines will enjoy radically improved performance.

One more performance feature is OpenGL adaptive resolution, which will subsample large images and scenes to speed things up on screen. It works well and reminds me of the various OpenGL-based improvements in Photoshop CS4. In fact, it comes into use when working with 3D layers brought in from that application: After Effects CS4 will use a lower resolution when working with the 3D layer and then increase resolution when the user is finished.

Increasing efficiency: The interface, CS4 integration and metadata

In After Effects CS4, you will find a lot more efficiency improvements than you’ll find new features and tools. The After Effects team has made it clear that this was a primary goal for this product cycle. There are several changes to the interface:

  • The Welcome screen gives easy access to the Tip of the Day, recent projects and several handy links. Ironically, I almost always turn these Welcome screens off because I usually need to do something not accessible in the Welcome screen.
  • After Effects CS4, like several CS4 apps, now have search capabilities—you’ll find the QuickSearch field in the Project panel. In After Effects’ case, one can search for elements, effects, properties, footage and more. This is really handy for large projects with a lot of assets, and I expect search to be further integrated with future versions of the Creative Suite.

aecs4-search
The QuickSearch field, found just below the “1.1 Search Timeline” tab in this image, allows for fast access to properties, effects, compositions and most any other element in After Effects CS4.

  • Flash users have long had a “breadcrumb trail” to help them navigate around the Stage and symbols in that application. After Effects CS4 now features a similar Composition Navigator at the top of the Composition panel. I’m very keen to keep my compositions organized and I use the Composition Navigator quite a bit to move up and down the asset trail. There is also a Mini-Flowchart accessible for each composition in the Composition Navigator: click the arrow and you’ll see how other compositions relate to the selected composition. However, I don’t use this feature as much.

aecs4-assets
The Composition Navigator provides great detail about a composition and its various assets and outputs.

  • The 16:9 widescreen Title/Action Safe overlays now show the 4:3 TV-safe areas as well. This is a new feature for those who find themselves republishing video content for the two screen formats. Since I do most of my After Effects work for the web this has not been a concern, but video professionals should find it useful.
  • After Effects CS4 can now calculate resolution automatically based on the user’s zoom settings, basically making it smarter when it comes to choosing how to render things on screen for the user. This is another one of those efficiency improvements that is great for the user but doesn’t necessarily extend After Effects’ abilities. Still, I’m glad to see this improvement because resolution is the type of thing I never liked handling manually, and I use auto resolution nowadays.

Flash CS4 Professional can import projects exported from After Effects CS4, with transformations intact, and users don’t have to handle the transcoding of some file formats such as FLV, PNG and JPEG—After Effects CS4 takes care of the process. This is all possible with the new XFL file format that InDesign also uses to pass files over to Flash. I think the Flash/After Effects integration is exceptional, with support for embedded cue points, changing footage width within Flash CS4 Professional and editing transformations within Flash. This really helps me improve my workflow for using After Effects in my web design work, because now I can create footage in After Effects CS4 and move it directly to Flash CS4 Professional, without an intermediate step such as rendering to QuickTime and encoding the footage as FLV.

aecs4-flv
After Effects CS4 and Flash CS4 Professional have come a long way with the CS4 upgrade, thanks to the new XFL file format and Flash Video (FLV).

There are also a lot of great After Effects/Flash integration features emerging that revolve around ActionScript. Michael Coleman, After Effects Product Manager, has an awesome tutorial here that shows how a Flash movie with ActionScript 3 can control the content in an After Effects CS4 project. This particular demonstration also employs Mocha, a new addition to After Effects CS4 that is covered later in this review. Flash and Flex developers will be particularly excited by these new features, and since the Flash runtime is now native to Acrobat 9 I see After Effects becoming more relevant to designers creating interactive PDFs and other PDF-based media.

aecs4-mobile
After Effects CS4 is fine-tuned to work with Device Central CS4 to create content for mobile devices.

After Effects CS4 ships with Adobe Device Central CS4, an application that aids development of content for mobile devices. Last year at Adobe’s headquarters I was given the opportunity to work with a composition in After Effects CS4 and test it for a variety of mobile devices within the application thanks to Device Central CS4. The workflow is similar to optimizing web graphics in Photoshop or Fireworks CS4.

The other major feature involving CS4 integration is new support for Photoshop’s 3D output, discussed in the next section.

The final component of After Effects CS4’s efficiency improvements come in the form of support for XMP metadata, which is awesome for larger shops with complex projects requiring project management support but may not be needed for small groups (and especially for sole proprietors like myself). But metadata support is important for anyone who demands organized assets and projects, and it converges with Speech Search (a speech-to-metadata conversion now possible in Premiere Pro CS4 and Soundbooth CS4) to allow something close to searchable video footage.

aecs4-metadata
After Effects CS4 does a lot more with XMP metadata than its predecessor. In the Output Module Settings, you can see how output can include source metadata.

Those who read my review of Soundbooth CS4 will know that I found it hard to get quality results with Speech Search, which of course will make it hard to get good speech metadata into After Effects CS4 projects. If metadata is important for your organization or work, then After Effects CS4 may be an essential upgrade for you; if not, then look at some of its other new features for a reason to buy.

Handling Photoshop Extended’s 3D output

Those who have Photoshop CS4 Extended and are looking to work its 3D features should consider purchasing After Effects CS4, because it’s become fairly easy to work with Photoshop’s 3D layers in that application. After Effects CS4 can work with cameras and such to create video with the 3D objects, though Photoshop can do similar things with its own Animation panel. But After Effects has Photoshop beat when it comes to special effects, and there’s obviously more flexibility when using After Effects to render footage to video.

aecs4-psd3d
Photoshop CS4 has improved its 3D features, and After Effects CS4 handles Photoshop’s 3D layers natively so it makes sense to put the two together in one 3D workflow.

I still do not use Photoshop CS4 for 3D work, opting instead to use Strata 3D or another dedicated 3D application. The 3D features in Photoshop CS4 are fun to work with and can do some cool things but it’s still not a dedicated application for that purpose. Those who like the idea of an integrated workflow for working with 3D objects (such as painting them in Photoshop) and then adding special effects with After Effects CS4 should look at these two applications, especially if they will be purchasing a CS4 suite anyway.

The Unified Camera tool and independent axes

aecs4-3d
The Unified Camera tool is fun to use and combines previous tool functions in one comprehensive feature.

After Effects CS4 has two other major improvements to its 3D compositing tools:

  • The Unified Camera tool, which basically will control camera orbit, x-y tracking and z-tracking with one tool. However, it’s somewhat complex and really designed for a three-button mouse. I use a Logitech MX Revolution and it has enough buttons, though I’ve never programmed one to be a middle-click button. Even though this is technically a new tool in After Effects’ arsenal, to me it seems like another efficiency aid: there are other (separate) tools to execute the same functions.
  • Independent x, y and z axes can be keyframed separately in After Effects CS4. This is a nice improvement that allows greater control over 3D animating. The independent axes can be combined again as needed.

New effects: Cartoon, Bilateral Blur and Turbulent Noise

For an effect-heavy application such as After Effects (it has more than 250 effects), I’m surprised Adobe found three new effects to add to it:

  • The Cartoon effect recreates an animated or painterly style, reminiscent of what I can get with Illustrator’s Live Trace feature or some of Photoshop’s artistic filters. I thought the effect worked well enough but made for some fairly rough artwork—those attempting to transform footage into perfect cel animation should probably lower their expectations. But other than that the Cartoon effect is slick and also GPU-accelerated which allows for fast rendering.
  • The Bilateral Blur effect is probably the most useful effect of this new bunch. Bilateral Blur will smooth a clip’s soft features while preserving sharp features—compare it with Photoshop’s Smart Sharpen filter. Users can create some nicely stylized video with this effect or clear up imperfections.
  • Fans of the Fractal Noise effect in After Effects will enjoy the new Turbulent Noise effect, which creates fractal-based noise useful for creating fog, clouds, fire and other natural effects. Turbulent Noise is basically an improved Fractal Noise effect, using GPU acceleration for smoother animation and rendering. While Bilateral Blur might be my most useful new effect, Turbulent Noise is definitely the coolest—natural effects come out really nice with this effect.

aecs4-bilateralblur
The Bilateral Blur effect softens soft features and preserves sharp features—the results are shown in the lower-right of this image.

Delicious Mocha

aecs4-mocha
Perhaps the most eye-popping feature of After Effects CS4 is Mocha, which is actually third-party software. Here Mocha has mapped the text to the door window.

One of the most exciting new features of After Effects CS4 isn’t even in the application: it’s Mocha for After Effects CS4, produced by UK-based Imagineer Systems. Mocha is a standalone application shipping with After Effects CS4 that allows for planar motion tracking; with it you can apply flat artwork to a two-dimensional shape in footage and animate it easily within the 3D space the footage occupies. It works great for things such as words on a paper, lettering on an door or art on a cell phone display. It works exactly as advertised, has an easy learning curve and creates some very powerful special effects! It looks like the Imagineer site still sells Mocha for versions 5–CS3 for $199.99, but After Effects CS4 offers it as a free add-on.

Conclusion

After Effects CS4 is a difficult product to judge—it’s an improvement over its predecessor but I feel some users out there will find it underwhelming. A lot of its improvements are focused on efficiency and there’s not many slick new features—though some of the things happening with After Effects/Flash integration is groundbreaking in my opinion. My favorite feature is probably the addition of Mocha, but it’s really just a standalone product bundled with After Effects CS4. I would recommend the upgrade to hardcore professionals who need to stay up with the current technology and need specific features such as metadata support or CS4 integration. For other users, it’s a harder sell but the upgrade’s $299 price keeps it a competitive deal—consider it a purchase of Mocha at full price and the After Effects CS4 upgrade for just a hundred dollars more!

After Effects CS4
Adobe Systems
Rating: 9/10
US$999/$299 upgrade

REVIEW: Fireworks CS4


Fireworks CS4 box

In 2007, when I reviewed the Adobe Creative Suite 3 applications, probably my most controversial was the Fireworks CS3 review, which got decent marks but I questioned its interface design, which had seemed left behind while the other apps got facelifts, and also its function in a suite of products that included Photoshop, Adobe’s main bitmap graphics application.

Even then, the Fireworks team was positioning Fireworks CS3 as a web prototyping tool—and now, with Fireworks CS4, the transition into a niche product has been completed. Fireworks CS4 is designed to be a rapid prototyping tool for creating web designs quickly. It also has some interesting new features that make it a unique application in the Adobe Creative Suite 4.

Interface evolution

I complained about Fireworks CS3’s lack of development of its interface, which had not changed much at all from Fireworks 8, the last version of that product produced by Macromedia. The problem was the Fireworks team did not have the time and resources to make such changes before the product’s launch. I expected Fireworks CS4 to be much more in line with Adobe’s interface for its other applications, and by and large it has delivered. The CS4 interface design has been incorporated into Fireworks CS4 so goodies like tabbed documents, workspace switching, the Application frame and more are available.

However, what I was really hoping for was alignment of Fireworks’ features to look like and act like identical features in other CS4 applications. In this regard Fireworks CS4 still has not changed much from versions 8 or CS3. Fireworks shares many panels with other CS4 apps (Align, Layers, Color) but Fireworks’ panels do not look or behave the same way. The Path panel, comparable to Illustrator’s Pathfinder panel, is actually much more robust than the Pathfinder panel but because it’s so unique it requires study to master it. Likewise, Fireworks CS4’s Color Palette panel is unique in that it has a Mixer and Blender mode that I’ve not seen in any other CS4 application.


Fireworks CS4 Path panel

Have you seen this panel anywhere else in CS4? Neither have I. Fireworks’ Path panel is unique, even when compared to the Pathfinder panel in Illustrator.

Fireworks CS4 sometimes improves on other apps’ features but sometimes it doesn’t. In particular, the method for adding filters to elements has not changed and I would rather work with Photoshop’s method (layer styles) or InDesign’s (using the Effects panel) than the small drop-down menu in Fireworks’ Properties panel. Also, Fireworks CS4 has implemented Smart Guides, which I applaud and work quite well, but it does not look like they will auto-space multiple elements like InDesign CS4’s Smart Guides will do.


Fireworks CS4 Smart Guides

Fireworks’ Smart Guides don’t seem as robust as InDesign CS4’s, but they are a real benefit nonetheless.

I am starting to wonder if Fireworks’ interface should not be changed, because it will throw off current users. The Photoshop team made some radical changes to its application’s interface in CS4, which has bothered a lot of users including myself. I personally think there’s still room for improvement, and it drives me crazy to use a unique set of panels and commands in Fireworks, but maybe the current user base doesn’t agree. Comments on this topic would be most welcome.

Importing Photoshop designs


Fireworks CS4 PSD open

Importing Photoshop files is a snap in Fireworks CS4, but some care is required to make it match what one sees in Photoshop.

One of the new features of Fireworks CS4 is the ability to import complex Photoshop documents. I tested this with a Photoshop comp of a website I will be designing in the next couple months, and it worked pretty well but there were a few problems:

  • Fireworks CS4 interprets all Photoshop layers as having 100% Fill, no matter the actual Fill amount
  • Layers can shift during import; use “Maintain Photoshop Layer Appearance” to resolve this, though this can reduce editability in Fireworks CS4
  • Fireworks CS4 applies fonts with slightly different spacing, causing some overlap with nearby elements
  • A Photoshop layer with a layer mask (a simple gradient mask in this case) was not masked in Fireworks CS4, even though Fireworks can do the same thing with a layer mask

This is when I really wish the Fireworks team would revise the application so it does things the same way as Photoshop and other CS4 applications, because I suspect these little errors occur when Photoshop features have no comparable Fireworks feature (or similar but not quite the same).

REVIEW: Soundbooth CS4


Soundbooth CS4 box

There are two applications I think of when I think of Adobe Labs: Lightroom and Soundbooth. These were the two applications I played with the most back when they were mere beta versions; now Soundbooth and Lightroom both are version 2, though Soundbooth is known as Soundbooth CS4. Both applications are quality products even though they are only in their second major release, and I think it’s because of all the mileage put upon them by users during the beta testing periods.

Multitrack support is here


Soundbooth CS4 multitrack

Multiple tracks are in Soundbooth CS4—’nuff said. Click the image for a better view.

I use Soundbooth mostly for cleaning up audio and editing for Flash multimedia, but there’s more to it than that—especially with some of Soundbooth CS4’s newest features such as multiple track support. Soundbooth CS4 users can add multiple audio and video tracks, making the program a lot more flexible and useful.

Volume correction

I love this feature: Soundbooth CS4 can correct volume across multiple files so they are the same volume. It’s a comparable thing to Photoshop’s Match Color command. Depending upon microphone setup, sometimes you can get some excessive loudness or softness in a clip—or maybe you have clips for speech, background music and sound effects. With Match Volume, it’s an easy process to synchronize their volume.


Soundbooth CS4 match volume

Clips’ volumes can be matched in Soundbooth CS4.

You can either match volume to synchronize the peak volumes, average volumes or sync to one of the selected files. This is the setting I use the most if one of my clips has good volume. It works very well and doesn’t take long—maybe 15 seconds or so to match one clip to another.

Along with Volume Correction’s Match Volume option, you’ll find a tab for equalizing volume. This process is designed to equalize volume in a single clip.

Searching for speech

Soundbooth CS4 has new “Speech Search technology” that allows the application to process sound clips and transcribe speech as metadata text. This is a wonderful new feature if you handle a lot of speech clips and need to transcribe them! It takes some time to process and transcribe speech but not an excessive amount—it took me 2–3 minutes to transcribe a 6:40 clip at the medium setting and 2 minutes to transcribe a 0:20 clip at the high setting.


Soundbooth CS4 speech search

The Speech Search capabilities in Soundbooth CS4 are impressive but they require a clean clip—no noise or music—and even then it’s designed to pick up just enough metadata for the main points.

I tested Speech Search on three clips: a song with lyrics, a 40-year-old British radiocast with good quality and a present-day movie clip of two men talking in a quiet room. The Soundbooth team tells me Speech Search is designed to capture enough keywords to identify points on the timeline, and it isn’t optimized to capture keywords in lyrics or poor quality clips. This was my experience with the first two clips, though the second (the British radiocast) did capture some quality keywords. The third clip had the best results but it was not good enough to get a fairly complete transcription. The Soundbooth team said they are continuing to develop Speech Search, and currently the best way to optimize its effectiveness is to work with high-quality voice clips and/or clean the noise with Soundbooth’s tools.

Better looping


Soundbooth CS4 beats

The beat indicators are shown in orange.

Since I often design sounds for Flash, loops and looping are very important to my work. Soundbooth CS4 has improved its looping capabilities with automatic beat detection—beats show up in the Editor as orange lines, and it helps when finding good in and out points. There were two aspects of the beat indicator feature that bothered me, but there are workarounds:

  • “Show Beat Indicators” is off by default, because it takes some processor power to have it on all the time. If you enable beat indicators in the View menu, the setting will remain even if you end the current session and begin a new one.
  • In and out points normally do not snap to a beat indicator. This can be changed with View > Snapping > Snap to Beats.

Adobe Sound Documents and Adobe Dynamic Link

Adobe has positioned Soundbooth CS4 to be a more integral part of the CS4 Production Premium suite with two new technologies: the non-destructive Adobe Sound Document (ASND) file format and the Adobe Dynamic Link, which links assets like sound files with larger projects in other CS4 applications. Dynamic Link is particularly helpful because sound and other supporting files can be linked directly to Premiere Pro CS4 and After Effects CS4 project files, and a change in a sound file with Soundbooth CS4 will show up in the other projects linked to it. ASND works with Premiere, After Effects and also Flash CS4 Professional, making round-trip editing easier.


Soundbooth CS4 dynamic link

Right-click on the movie clip and you can either Render And Replace or, thanks to the new Dynamic Link, Edit Source File and work with the clip in its native application.

MP3 compression preview

One more small change has been made to Soundbooth CS4, but it’s quite a time-saver so I’ll elaborate: the MP3 output dialog box now has a compression preview button so you can hear the sound quality before actually exporting. I am always fiddling with various exports and trying them out to check quality, so being able to do this before actually processing the export is a big benefit. The Flash development team should consider doing something similar in the Flash Media Encoder CS4!

Conclusion

Now that Soundbooth is in the Creative Suite 4, it has become my go-to application for audio work. Other applications can do similar things and some do it better, but since Soundbooth CS4 is tied into the other CS4 apps including Flash CS4 Professional I have an easier time working with it. The failure of Speech Search to catch the speech is a glaring problem, and I hope it will be improved upon in the next version.

Soundbooth CS4
Adobe Systems
Rating: 8/10
US$199/$79 upgrade

BOOK REVIEW: Six Rules for Brand Revitalization


Six Rules cover

Six Rules for Brand Revitalization is a portrait of McDonald’s and its marketing from 2002–2005, when Larry Light (Global Chief Marketing Officer for the company and now a brand consultant) helped revitalize McDonald’s brand across the world. This revitalization is the case study that runs throughout Six Rules and is the basis for Light’s and Kiddon’s six-rule process for doing the same revitalization for most any brand. I personally am not sure McDonald’s has overcome the various strikes it has against it (quality, nutrition, customer service) but I’ll leave it to readers to judge the validity of McDonald’s as a brand success.

A mix of technical and anecdotal

I am always up for a good marketing story, and the McDonald’s story in Six Rules is a good one. All the necessary elements are there: a strong brand reduced to a weak one, oblivious executives replaced by progress ones with new ideas, and finally a well-executed strategy returns the brand to its former glory. The story in Six Rules ranks right at the top, in both McDonald’s descent into brand confusion and its eventual rise (if you believe the book).

There are many marketing books on the shelves with these stories, and Six Rules stands out for being focused almost exclusively on the McDonald’s story. This is not a combination of multiple stories as Jim Collins’ Good to Great was: the McDonald’s story is the only real example in the book, and it runs throughout. I actually enjoyed this deep focus on one complex example, and I was glad to see this focus on Light’s former employer did not crowd out the necessary text about the concepts behind his work at McDonald’s.

There is actually a good deal of technical information designed to deliver McDonald’s results for one’s own brand:

  • Concepts such as the six rules and the formula for value are drawn out in charts and equations. The brand pyramid is a particularly effective visual aid.
  • Each chapter ends with a “Do’s and Don’ts” section that outlines the key actions and pitfalls encountered throughout the McDonald’s story, and they are general enough to be applied to anyone’s brand difficulties.
  • It should also be said that McDonald’s is not the only case study in Six Rules: several other brands do make small appearances, such as Swatch, Apple, FedEx and others.

Inside and outside

A lot of marketing books focus on the ways companies market outward: advertising, packaging, social media, public relations. Six Rules takes it an important step farther by also examining what Light did to build the brand inward: encouraging employees to buy into the new brand promises, training new employees about the brand promise instead of the minutiae of employment, and developing a company culture that in return would express the brand’s promises in every customer interaction. I know first-hand that this is one of the most important aspects of marketing and also one of the least acknowledged or most poorly executed. Marketing tools can bang out a message or a promise as much as you want, but if the customer doesn’t get that promise when interacting with the company then it’s all for nothing. Light gets it right by paying close attention to this vital aspect of brand revitalization; anyone reading this book should pay the same close attention to this.

A story with no pictures

The McDonald’s brand revitalization story is remarkably full of interesting characters (Jim Cantalupo, Charlie Bell and Light himself) and changes in architecture, packaging, Ronald McDonald and other visual elements of the company. Therefore, I am disappointed Six Rules does not have any pictures! The book is slim despite being over 200 pages and it feels like a textbook instead of a storybook—textbooks are good, but the McDonald’s story is such an important part of Six Rules and the book design and execution serves the theory before the story. This is both good and bad.

Conclusion

Six Rules for Brand Revitalization is a very good book, and I recommend it for any marketing professional who works in the field of branding. There are many books like it on the shelves but its unique story about McDonald’s makes it stand out, and Light does a great job translating his personal success into principles and rules that anyone can apply to branding situations of any kind.

Six Rules for Brand Revitalization
Larry Light and Joan Kiddon
Rating: 9/10
Published by Wharton School Publishing
US$24.99

REVIEW: InDesign CS4 and InCopy CS4


InDesign CS4 box

Some of the CS4 applications I’ve reviewed have been somewhat disappointing (Photoshop) while others have turned out to be radical upgrades with varying degrees of success (Dreamweaver, Flash). InDesign CS4 is, in my opinion, one of the best upgrades in CS4 suite: none of its new features really miss the mark, and most of them are quite useful (and a few are excellent advances in InDesign’s evolution). In my daily work I use InDesign CS4 more than probably any other Adobe application, and it has been a treat to use.

The new preflight paradigm

I have to begin my review with Live Preflight, InDesign CS4’s new method for preflighting documents. For twenty years, designers have put together their print layouts only to preflight at the very end, looking for RGB images, missing fonts and other errors that would ruin the final output. We used to use a third-party program like Markzware’s Flightcheck to preflight files before output, and then a few years ago InDesign incorporated native preflight technology. However, both these preflight options were manually run by the designer after the work was done.


InDesign CS4 Preflight panel

Live Preflight alone makes InDesign CS4 an upgrade worth considering—catching one printing error can practically pay for itself.

Live Preflight checks documents for output problems constantly, while the designer is laying out pages. There’s a simple display at the bottom of the document window listing the number of errors (unfortunately, InDesign CS4 does not highlight the actual page element causing the error) and from here one can also set or revise the profile InDesign CS4 uses to analyze the document. It’s an easy process to revise profiles with the Preflight Profiles dialog box—just check what InDesign needs to look for, and set the numbers accordingly. I use preflight profiles to check my layouts going to the web, newsprint or magazines. Live Preflighting has changed the way I work and all I can think is, “Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?”

Advances in the user interface


InDesign CS4 Links panel

The Links panel has seen major changes in InDesign CS4. Some new features haven’t been too useful for me, but on average it is a welcome improvement.

Adobe made news with the major revisions in the CS4 interface, but InDesign CS4 went quite a bit further with its own additions to its user interface:

  • A Smart Cursor heads-up display shows your X-Y coordinates as you move and transform items with the selection tools.
  • Smart Guides appear when dragging elements around and allow for extremely simple alignment, spacing and resizing moves in relation to other elements. Smart Guides will show you when objects are evenly spaced, aligned or other attributes usually controlled by the Align panel. I hardly use the Align panel anymore, thanks to Smart Guides. However, I’ve found that in layouts with many elements Smart Guides will snap you to align with things you don’t want to align to. The workaround to this is to zoom in so all you see on screen are the elements that need to be aligned: Smart Guides only pay attention to elements in the current view. However, sometimes I am aligning objects across a large cross-section of the layout and other elements hamper my efforts—in this case I just turn off Smart Guides and use the Align panel to make it work.
  • The Links panel has been redesigned to show a lot more information, such as the page where the link instances resides, attributes (scale, resolution, layer and others), metadata and more. Link thumbnails are particularly effective, as is the ability to show only one instances of the link in the Links panel—if you have 50 instances of a logo, listing it once rather than 50 times saves a lot of space. The new Links panel, by default, has more detail than I usually need, but it’s customizable through the panel’s flyout menu (look for Panel Options) so it’s a good improvement overall.


InDesign CS4 Smart Guides align

Smart Guides can align elements…


InDesign CS4 Smart Guides spacing

…and space them uniformly. Check out the green arrows.

I really like these UI improvements—the InDesign development team was really thinking when they put this batch of features together.

Conditional text and cross-references

The conditional text and cross-referencing features are all about streamlining multiple elements and versioning of InDesign documents, and though my clients and I have not yet found a need for this I do think it’s a good duo of features for the right designers.


InDesign CS4 conditional text

The Conditional Text panel allows designers to make different document versions in one file.

Conditional text in InDesign CS4 allows designers to tag text so it appears if a certain condition is met. This replaces the common practice of placing text blocks on different layers and showing/hiding them to create different versions on the fly. The new Conditional Text panel looks similar to the Layers panel, and it’s from here that you apply a condition (or conditions) to selected text. This is a wonderful feature for those creating multiple versions of the same document, whether for release in multiple countries and states or for multiple audiences.

Cross-referencing basically makes selected text into a symbol (to borrow Flash lingo) that can be applied as instances elsewhere in the document—change the original symbol and all the instances change along with it. I get more use out of cross-referencing because publication design almost always uses multiple instances of titles, headings, chapter titles and so on. However, I find that cross-references (and hyperlinks, which share the same panel) are difficult to use. One can’t simply select text and make it a cross-reference: it has to be a text anchor (created in the Hyperlinks panel) or styled with a particular paragraph style, and even then it’s a difficult process to master. If you revise all the text in a cross-reference, for example, the cross-reference will not update automatically—but the cross-reference itself is maintained. This is actually by design—cross-referenced text can be formatted and edited, and still retain its cross-reference—but it is a complex function that requires some study.

REVIEW: Illustrator CS4 Reveals Multiple Improvements


Illustrator CS4 box

Can you believe Adobe Illustrator has reached version 14? It doesn’t seem too long ago that we designers were working with small-numbered applications such as Photoshop 6, InDesign 2, Quark 4 and others. Many of these are now consolidated under one company and into one homogenous Creative Suite. We should still keep in mind that Illustrator has been shipping for 21 years this month.

Illustrator’s longevity is one reason why I am somewhat disappointed with Illustrator CS4. There really is not a lot of groundbreaking new technology in the new release, and some of its new features are new to all CS4 applications—the CS4 interface is a prime example. I really have not had a need for most of the new features found in Illustrator CS4, though most of them are useful and a few of them do push the envelope. One in particular is something that I’m now using with all my Illustrator files, and is something that more than a few designers will find earth-shattering.

Multiple artboards

While it’s frowned upon by most designers, there are still a lot of designers who create multi-page layouts in Illustrator. This is meant to be done in an actual page layout application like QuarkXPress or InDesign, but some people simply have made do with Illustrator over the years (it’s one of the few apps that can do both art and type fairly well) and cause grief for publication designers with their ads and page layouts.

I had always expected the Illustrator team to eventually allow multiple pages to accommodate these designers, since it’s clear these designers will never learn a second application when they can do it all in one. Illustrator CS4 comes close by introducing multiple artboards. Designed to be an efficiency aid, multiple artboards can be set up in one document to allow multiple deliverables or art to reside in one file. There’s a new Artboard tool for selecting, resizing and positioning artboards as well.


Illustrator CS4 artboards

Illustrator CS4 allows for multiple artboards for multiple graphics.

Multiple artboards is the one great new feature in Illustrator CS4. I’ve used it to compile all my various logos in one single file, and I can place a selected artboard in InDesign CS4 so compatibility is not an issue. I have clients who maintain large libraries of logos, and now they can be compiled into one or a few Illustrator files. You can also print multiple artboards, which is a valuable ability, and artboards don’t have to be the same size. However, multiple artboards aren’t really designed to make Illustrator into InDesign or QuarkXPress—artboards aren’t linked in any kind of pageflow structure. Think of them as separate Illustrator documents that just happen to be in one file. I don’t see multiple artboards as the final solution for the designers who use Illustrator for page layout—it will probably help, but in the end it’s still a kludge for them to do such work in Illustrator.


Illustrator CS4 PDF

Multiple artboards can be exported as a multi-page PDF file.

The Blob Brush: Borrowed from Flash


Illustrator CS4 Blob Brush

The Blob Brush adds some realism to the painting/drawing experience.

Another improvement touted in Illustrator CS4 is the Blob Brush tool, which is supposed to recapture the fluidity of painting. You can brush with the tool and then use the Eraser and/or Smooth tools to tweak the resulting shape. The most interesting aspect of the Blob Brush tool is the fact that strokes will “blend in” with other shapes of the same color, creating a painterly feel. Those who are familiar with Flash know that its Brush tool has been behaving this way for years. The benefit of the Blob Brush tool is its painterly behavior in a vector-based drawing application, but most of what I do in Illustrator is drawing and drafting so I have not had a need for it. When I do paint, I stick with Photoshop and Painter—but if I ever need to combine vector output and painterly styles, I will look to the Blob Brush tool to make it work.

A major advancement with gradients


Illustrator CS4 gradient

Gradient controls are overlaid on gradient-filled objects for greater ease of use.

Most of what I like in Illustrator CS4 does not revolve around new paintbrushes or tools but efficiency enhancements. One of the latter is the new Gradient controls that appear on top of objects with applied gradients. I’ve always hated going back to the Gradient panel every time I use gradients, and now the same controls are available right on the object! Working with the controls take a little practice but they’re fairly self-explanatory and very forgiving with mistakes.

Another good development in Illustrator gradient technology is transparency control for individual gradient stops. With this, gradients can now fade anywhere. Photoshop has been doing this as long as I can remember, and only now has Illustrator caught up. The two applications handle transparency differently (Illustrator uses an Opacity slider, Photoshop uses “transparency stops”) but the end result is the same.