Sunday, February 22, 2009

Massively Useful (Life Changing) Software: Klok

EDIT: This article has a follow up post about the beta program that was written a year later.

And yes, I do mean life changing.

Ever wonder how much time you actually spend on a project? If you bid a 40 hour project are you really sure it's going to take that long? How much time does each stage of the project take? How many hours do you spend emailing the client? What about other activities during the day like visiting websites, recreation, and cooking food? Where is your time going?

I've wanted to know the answers to those questions for a very long time. I thought I had a pretty good idea, but I could never know for sure without an easy to use timeclock program. In the past I've searched for a free one that does not require a web server and is adequate for single person use, but I couldn't find one.

Luckily a week and a half ago I found a very promising candidate thanks to an article on Webdesigner Debot. It's called Klok, an Adobe AIR app and therefore multiplatform application.

A Week with Klok
I would have blogged about Klok sooner but I wanted to show what a full week of using Klok looks like. I've replaced the names of some of these projects so I could show you a screenshot of my schedule. So here it is: what I actually did throughout the week. No guess work, no calculating, just dragging and dropping a task into the "Currently working on" area every time I switched tasks.



By looking at the Week View I can see when I woke up, when I went to bed, how much work I got done that day, and so on. Every project is color coded so I can get a good idea about what I did that day at a glance.



The Reports are also very informative. I can see a percentage of how much time I put into each activity throughout the week. And if I wanted to get into more detail I can click on the piece of the pie chart to bring up the subtasks for that project.

And lastly, another important function of Klok is knowing how much time you've put into a project compared to how much your estimate was. You can give the project an overall hourly rate, as well as rates for each subtask, so things like emailing the client can have a lower hourly rate than actual design work if you want. If no hourly rate is set for a subproject it'll just assume the hourly rate you set for the top-level project. Klok can then calculate how much the project was actually worth based on the combined hourly rates to help you better bid projects in the future.

Accountability
Another thing that's great about using Klok is the accountability of having to record everything you do throughout the day. In the same way that people who keep a food journal are much more likely to loose weight than those who don't, you'll become more likely to be productive when you can see how much time you spent goofing off instead of working. If there's too much turquoise or neon green in my Week View—turquoise representing my non-essential daily tasks and green representing recreation (i.e. video games)—I'll be compelled to start working more because I'll have irrefutable proof that I've wasted too much time.

Learning and Trying New Things to be More Productive
Based on the information I got from the Week View and the Reports I was able to make some observations about my work and non-working habits.

For one, I spend a lot of time visiting websites, which includes reading news, insightful articles, and comics. To give you an idea I spent about 23 hours this past week working on freelance stuff and 11 hours visiting websites. Last year I realized that I spent a ton of time visiting websites, so I started using Google Reader which has saved me a lot of time, but even with Google Reader I've found that I still need to come up with a way to make that part of my life more efficient or reduce the number of sites I visit because it's a non-essential part of my life, even though I do find treasures of information on those sites occasionally (like Klok for example). So this coming week as an experiment I'll check the same RSS feeds, but instead of logging into Google Reader as a break-time activity I'll log in only once throughout the day to see if that reduces the time I spend reading articles. And after the week is done I can pull up the report and make a comparison. [Update: It worked. I spent a few less hours visiting websites when I did that.] Klok makes it really easy to use the scientific method in your time management.

The other thing I was also surprised about was how much of my time was spent writing emails to clients (about 10%). Depending on the length of the email it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a full hour to write each one. The reason for this is I'll proofread each one and make sure I word everything just right and have no spelling or gramatical errors. I'm convinced that it's time well spent to sound intelligent to your clients, and I know they've appreciated it because I've gotten comments saying how informative and thorough my emails are. I'm not sure how I could speed that up except by becoming a better writer and proofreader, but it's still nice to know how much time is spent doing that when I make bids for future projects

Conclusion
If you are a freelancer use this program. The ability to keep track of your daily activities to the to the minute, and do it easily, is extremely valuable. I was able to use this program to keep track of everything I did throughout the day, which was easy for me because I'm at my computer all the time. So even if your life doesn't evolve around the computer you can still use it record what you do when you are at your computer working.

Be sure you download (and read the information for) the beta version because it has a lot of really nice features that the "stable" version doesn't. And the beta is not that buggy.

And while we are still on the topic, Randy Pausch gave a great lecture on Time Management which I'd strongly recommend you watch if you haven't already.

Oh, one last thing. Observant readers may have noticed from the screenshot that I've been spending a ton of time on a Super Top Secret Lumaglyph Project. I'll be sharing information on that—eventually.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Massively Useful Software: FontForge and YourFonts.com

[EDIT] Scruss provide some information on how to do this under Cygwin (and Linux I'm sure) at http://scruss.com/blog/2010/05/09/creating-a-truetype-font-from-your-handwriting-with-your-scanner-your-printer-and-fontforge/ I haven't tried it out yet, (when I do I'll post it here) but this could very well come in handy. Thanks for the tip!

Many of the designers I know are typophiles. We live and breath type and will search for hours trying to find the right typeface, and when we are not doing that we'll spend weeks trying to create one. Here's a couple of font tools that I've used in the past: YourFonts.com automatically creates a TrueType font from a scan of your handwriting, and FontForge allows you to create fonts from scratch and of course edit existing ones.

YourFonts.com
[EDIT] YourFoints is not free anymore. It now costs $12.50 + $6.00 if you upload both template pages.

For years I've wanted to create a font of my own handwriting. Originally my motivation for this was out of novelty because having your handwriting as a TrueType font is just plain cool. But now that I'm doing more concept art I wanted my handwriting font because using a font like Myriad Pro for notes just doesn't fit well with the loose sketches and paintings. Even though it takes some time to set up the gridlines and write my notes on screen using my tablet, I do it anyway because it just looks right as opposed to using a refined font.

For a while I've put off making that font because of how long it would take for me to make one, but now there's YourFonts.com. After about 20 minutes of writing my font into the template they provided (which I did in Photoshop so it would look like I wrote it with a tablet) I was able to create a TrueType font of my handwriting!

The raster to vector conversion was good, and aside from some kerning issues (which I'll get into in a second) the font was perfect. So it was a good thing I waited because this site saved me a lot of time.

FontForge
So about those kerning issues. YourFonts.com creates a TrueType font with the left and right bearings at a fixed distance away from the glyph. And as any type designer would know this isn't always desirable, and I definitely wanted to change the width of the space character, so to fix all of that I used a powerful open source program called FontForge.

FontForge isn't always a super easy program to install. It's originally a Linux program, and if you are using Ubuntu you simply go to Add New Programs, search for FontForge, and it'll download and install it for you automatically. Mac users will have a harder time installing it, but for those of you using Windows you could have a frustrating experience; you'll need to install Cygwin.

Now, I've installed FontForge on Windows before so I knew what I was getting into. I do have it installed on my Fedora partition but having to reboot just to edit a font is troublesome. I thought that I could sidestep the Cygwin nightmare by installing andLinux which is basically Ubuntu running on something that is kind of like a virtual machine (in that it needs dedicated RAM) just so I could install FontForge without problems. Unfortunately, it crashed a lot and FontForge ran slowly too, so I decided to go ahead and install Cygwin anyway which I do still recommend if you are going to be running FontForge in Windows.

Here's some tips about installing it because the documentation on the FontForge site on how to install Cygwin properly is lacking.

From the server list select mirror.kernel.org. It's a fast and reliable server. When you go to select the packages that need to be installed, first make sure that the checkbox on the bottom that says "hide obsolete packages" is unchecked, as FontForge needs some obsolete packages. And I found clicking on the view button so it's set to "full" helped my find everything too.

The good news is that making sure that all of the packages are selected is the hard part. The rest of the steps on how to install it are pretty straight forward.

I will add though that FontForge, even though it's probably the best font editing software out there, the program is pretty ugly. But hey, once you install it and go through the tutorials they have on the FontForge site it's a pretty nice program.

After I installed FontForge I started to adjust the kerning between each pair of characters. Yes, you can set the kern for any pair of characters that you want and have the kern amount stored in the font so it's kerned automatically as you type it; it's just a matter of typing the letters into the Metric Window and drag and drop the lines between them.

But first you need to create a lookup subtable for the kern amount. And again, I do suggest you read the manual because I'm not going to write a huge tutorial on how to do this, but here's some hints: If you try to adjust the kerning it'll bring the New Lookup Subtable dialog for you. The subtable type should already be set to "pair position (kerning)", click on the "" button, change the feature to "horizontal kerning", and maybe change the lookup name to "kern" just so it's shorter. When you click OK it'll ask you for a name. Just use what it put in already. After that's set up, anytime you change the spacing between any two characters that you type out on the Metrics Window it'll save the kern amount, so you'll want to try every combination of letters if you have time to.

And again, FontForge is a serious program so please read the manual before you use it. You'll be glad you did because FontForge is a great program for blooming type designers.

Massively Useful Typography Books?

Sure, while we are on the topic. "The Elements of Typographic Style" by Robert Bringhurst. A must book for typographers and type designers.