Web Design and SEO Blog
Adobe After Effects can be an extremely useful prototyping tool for mocking up 3D CSS transforms and animations, and even 2D CSS transforms and animations. Prototyping CSS transforms and animations in After Effects can produce realistic results, and even animation properties can be translated into CSS values. Programming resources are usually limited, so experimenting with various effects in CSS can prove invaluable, and coming to your development team with a polished prototype transform or animation can help the programmer focus on implementation rather than creation.
An introduction: Project Manager and wearer of hats.
JTech Communications out of Bozeman, Montana hired me earlier this year — and I have to say that I have discovered the perfect fit for my love of web development and passion for designing custom websites. Although I am the Project Manager, I wear many hats. In fact, I have come to learn that being part of a growing web development company involves constant change. I am always looking at ways to improve our workflow or internal operations — while staying up to date with current web standards. Because my job is multifaceted, I will be writing future blog posts on any number of advanced website subjects — technical tidbits, client relations, or design perspectives informed by my own grounding and history as a photographer in Montana and around the world.
Rebuilding our Website.
A few months ago, our custom web design team began making a wish list of features for a refresh to our website. When we decided it was time to build our wish list, the depth of the changes led to rebuilding the website from the ground up to add responsive design, use the latest standards, utilize the newest version of our custom framework, incorporate new content such as this blog, and take our CSS3 animations to the next level.
Creating a digital world.
We decided to create a 3D world of portfolio pieces (from now on referred to as objects) in which the user (the camera) would fly to each object. The focus would cycle through our six of our eighteen most recent projects, showcasing each in turn. Since we were working within a 3D world, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to utilize depth of field in the design. A few years back I asked myself: why don’t designers utilize depth of field often (if at all)? The thought of using depth of field to define usability and focus in an interface was exciting. For our project, depth of field would be based on an object’s location in 3D space — calculated dynamically with the CSS blur filter.
Creating a 3D world provided many new possibilities, as well as raising many questions that we had to answer to move forward. We began evaluating these questions before we embarked on the project. Would camera orientation change along a given path? What were the most appealing blur levels?, What was the appropriate perspective, and how many objects will there be? Would the camera’s paths be static and determined before hand, or dynamic and random? Which possible paths are visually interesting? Of the possible paths, which perform best? How will we iterate our 18 most recent portfolio pieces throughout the field of objects? How many objects could browsers (and devices) handle in a given view?
Creating the Mockup
To begin answering these questions, we had to create the world — without code. We had to be sure we liked the way our world looked, and did not want to waste our programming team’s time on something we weren’t certain we liked. After Effects is a powerful tool, and even those without any experience in After Effects can gain enough of a foundation to mockup most 3D Transform animations after watching a few tutorials over the course of 1-3 hours. After Effects provides efficient means through which you can place objects in space based on X, Y, and Z coordinates; by using a camera layer in that 3D space, the world becomes easy to navigate. Paths and key frames are inherent in After Effects, which made it easy to create the fly-to animations along a path.
Before we even began a composition in After Effects, we sketched out our world on paper to provide some direction before composing in After Effects. We wanted to draw out where our 6 pieces could be in order to generate an interesting path. We knew we wanted to cycle through 6 of our 18 most recent portfolio pieces, and then repeat, which meant the end had to connect to the beginning. (We also planned on adding more dummy objects in order to fill out the world to create a better effect.) This meant the user would go in a circle, with a goal of obscuring that loop in the path. To increase variation in the path, we decided to make 18 objects, iterating each of the 6 pieces three times. Once we had a mockup of our field, we started drawing lines from piece to piece and numbering them 1-6 to make sure there wasn’t any possibility of seeing the same piece in juxtaposition with its clone. This meant if we were looking at Object 1, the other two Object 1’s had to be far enough away that you wouldn’t see them behind or next to the Object 1 you were currently focused on. (See Fig. 1, 2) Next, we had to make sure that every 6 was able to hook back up with a 1 so that we could loop through the three paths. We decided that any 6 had avoid being in a position where the 1 was really far away. We got to a point that we felt we had a good plan. After our sketching exercise, it was time to take the paper mockup and re-create something similar in After Effects.
Fig. 1 - The example illustrated above is to demonstrate what we were trying to avoid. On paper, we would kind of guess a field of view, something that I could modify if I had to in case we ran into situations where the field of view was so wide that it was impossible to avoid this situation. We rearranged the numbers until you could never see the same number twice in any given field of view when you were focused on the object.
Creating the World in After Effects
I began with a composition that approximated a large browser window — just so I had a realistic idea of what the final result would look like. I added in some of our website’s static interface elements on their own layers, and was left with the empty space in which to create the world. One important note: I left the static interface elements as 2D layers, while manipulating all the portfolio objects in 3D. Leaving the static interface in 2D preserved its position regardless of where the camera traveled through the world. (See Fig. 3)
￼Fig. 3 - The navigation elements, our logo, and our footer were going to be on top of the objects at all times. I left these as 2D layers and then was able to create the 3D world that would appear behind these important UI elements.
My first goal was to place 18 objects that varied on the X, Y, and Z axes, placed similarly to our paper mockup. One thing our map did not illustrate was any change on the Y axis. I played around with moving objects up and down on the Y axis, as well as moving them on the X and Z. Eventually I had 18 objects that were positioned in a way that seemed appropriate. Following that, it was time to create the camera that would allow me to fly around in the space. Until I had a camera I wouldn’t know if my positions were ideal. (The first time around I did end up placing objects too close to one another).
My second goal was to determine the 3D camera settings in order to flesh out relative size between the objects in the world. This would also affect the object positions - the distances between objects needed to generate interesting paths. I needed to determine an ideal speed, and if it took too long or too short to get to the next object, the animation felt wrong. It would also determine the distance my null object would be from the objects (more on this in the next section). The reason to define the camera settings after placing objects is because the various camera properties that After Effects provides, such as zoom, will modify the relative distance and size between objects — as well as their relative position from the camera’s point of view (AKA perspective — which is what the browser window will show). Changing this property on the camera isn’t quite as useful or intuitive without objects to look at. Theoretically I could have created identical results even if my camera settings were different, just by using larger or smaller objects. Because my objects were 900x700 pixels my camera settings would be specified to make a world of objects that big look good. In After Effects, the camera’s zoom and focus distance is typically set to be the same value. Allow me to clarify the difference between these properties and why I set them to be the same. Zoom is distance between the lens and the image plane. The image plane is where an object would appear at full size. (AE has cleverly calculated how a 50mm lens would behave in terms of pixels, but more on that another day). The Focus Distance property is the distance from the lens to the plane where objects appear in perfect focus (which can be different than the zoom distance!) For most purposes, you want those to be the same — in my case, I definitely want the zoom plane to match the focal plane. (See Fig. 4, 5)
Fig. 4, 5 - As you can see, the relative size of the focused object is the same, but the objects around it appear as relatively different distances and sizes. The only properties that are different are the Zoom/Focus Distance properties. The camera is placed 400px closer to maintain the relative size of the object that is being focused on - which is simply because we changed the zoom from 800 to 400 = 400. When you Zoom out, objects appear further away, farther apart from each other, and of course, smaller. In the second image you can see that the zoom has been increased, which we decided was the more interesting of the two. We used a Zoom/Focus Distance of 800px.
Creating the Animation in After Effects
Now, with the camera settings mostly setup (I used a depth of field that blurred objects enough that they didn’t distract from the object that was being focused on) I wanted to make camera positioning easy, so I created a null object. There are lots of good tutorials on the uses of null objects, so I will only go into it briefly. A null object is an invisible point in space, often used for positioning layers in a parent>child layer relationship. I aligned the null object on the same plane as the focus distance/zoom of the camera. In other words, the invisible plane that my camera was zoomed into and focused on also was the same plane that my null object was on. I also made the null object a parent to the camera, so that any movement of the null object would also move the camera accordingly. This set up made things a lot easier, because then I just had to position the null object using the same exact coordinates as an object I wanted to focus on, instead of doing a bunch of math to calculate where the camera had to be placed so that the focus distance and zoom landed on the object’s position. (See Fig. 6, 7)
Fig. 6,7 - The Leadership Montana object’s coordinates were used to place the null object on the same plane as the object - which also is the same plane as the camera’s zoom and focus distance - resulting in perfect positioning of the camera. I could then animate the null object and the camera would just follow. Important note: In my application, the object appeared too high, because of my 2d interface. The objects appear centered on the composition, not my interface. In order to correct this, I calculated how many pixels down the object would have to move in order for it to appear as it would in the browser, below the heading “Advanced Websites”. That value turned out to be 50px, which is why there is a 50px discrepancy in my Y position between the null object and the portfolio object.
I just had to copy and paste coordinates from the object I wanted to focus on into the null object’s coordinates and my camera would immediately be placed right in front of the object I wanted to focus on, at the exact distance it needed to be from the object. Lastly, the other important reason to use the null object was because our final product was going to be built with CSS, which had to use the positions of the pieces — there is no concept of a camera in CSS 3D Transforms. In CSS 3D Transforms, objects and space are flying around you, rather than you flying through space. It’s all object coordinate-based. By positioning the null object exactly with the objects, I knew I could provide some kind of information to our programmer. I would space my keyframes out two seconds because the timing could be changed in CSS. I did not worry about the “pausing” part. Each keyframe was created for my null object (which moves the camera), and afterwards I added animations between keyframes. (See Fig. 8)
Fig. 8 - It was easy to create all 18 keyframes fairly quickly, because I just had to move my current time indicator 2 seconds, copy the position of the destination portfolio piece from the last, and then paste them into my null object’s position coordinates.
The path was crude, because it was just a straight line by default. In order to make it look more interesting, I modified the path using the pen tool and the top and right views of my world, modifying the red path line manually. (See Fig. 9)
Fig. 9 - The red path appears based on your position on the timeline - and it only shows so many keyframes. The number of frames you can see at one time is editable in the preferences dialogue. In order to modify the red path, its helpful to use the top view, or the right view, to maintain explicit access to either the Y axis, or the X and Z axis. With the pen tool selected, you can treat the read path just as you would a bezier curve. That way, the camera can travel on a path that may flow around objects, instead of straight line.
To be continued in Part II.
JTech’s Montana web development service created G Bar M’s new website and offers a glimpse into life on the ranch. It features rich textures, immersive photography, and a beautiful video that brings G Bar M to life. The new website assists prospective guests in making reservations at G Bar M and looks great whether your screen is large or small. Pay their advanced website a visit:
The new advanced website we’re developing will provide employment applications through their staffing agency, host their newsletters, provide a members-restricted section to manage Montana Health Network’s offering of programs, and much more. This custom Montana web development project will bring a friendly modern face to their organization — we look forward to sharing it with you!
JTech’s Montana web development team is planning a new website for NRTRC that is robust and modern, including responsive website design and a clean information architecture that makes finding important telehealth information easy. We're excited to be developing an advanced custom website with NRTRC that perfectly suits their needs — and to help facilitate the flow of vital telehealth information to telehealth service providers.
Our Bozeman, Montana advanced website development team upgraded American Paintball Park's website with an online scheduling system that helps clients reserve space at their event facility. We designed and built them a custom website calendaring system that manages availability and reservations for paintball parties of differing lengths and sizes without double-booking or manual data entry for who booked what and when.
The new website system’s design takes potential paintballers through an easy web interaction — first, pick how long a party you want and how many friends you'll be bringing. Second, pick an available slot for parties of that length. Then, let American Paintball know who you are and how they can get ahold of you to keep your reservation. That's it! Web development that makes it as easy to schedule an event as splattering your friend with a few rounds of brightly-colored pigment.
On the newly updated JTech website, we've built a single form that handles all of our frequent contact scenarios. For people who are saying hello or giving simple feedback, the form has one page and the message can be quickly sent — no hassle.
For customers wanting to file a service request, or for potential customers asking us about a new project, our form dynamically increases in complexity, by requesting information about their company and their project in additional stages. If they're looking for a new project, the form sends their inquiry to a different department than forms requesting maintenance or updates to an existing project.
These examples are just the beginning. Using forms, your website can become as interactive as you need to serve all of your target audiences.
We have a long-standing relationship with the Gallatin Valley YMCA. They're doing great work in our community, and we're proud to sponsor them. Most recently, we've overhauled the registration system we built for their programs, events and athletics to streamline kids being added to the appropriate sports teams.
We've continued to improve their site since it first launched in 2011, and have always been pleased with the clean, cheerful, robust website. The Gallatin Valley YMCA is a pillar of our community — if you're interested in volunteering, sponsoring or are interested in enrolling your kids in their program, visit their website!
Josh Hamilton collaborates with Mike Kostrey, our Search Marketing manager, focusing his energy on outreach and optimization. When he's not devising strategies to help JTech's clients succeed online, Josh travels the nation playing ultimate frisbee with the MSU and Bozeman club teams. Welcome, Josh!
The course recently began in Big Sky, Montana, where they learned from various state and local leaders — including Pam Bucy, Commissioner of Montana’s Department of Labor and Industry and Dan Wenk, Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
Future excursions will take Joshua and the rest of the Leadership class across Montana — to Great Falls, Bozeman, Helena, Miles City, Kalispell, and Billings. Learn more about Leadership Montana and all it has to offer on their website: leadershipmontana.org.
Have a look at the gallery we built of Swanson Construction's Custom Homes and Architectural Projects.
An introduction: shiny things, negative space and usability.
As JTech’s designer, I’m the visual voice behind the curtain of almost all our recent websites. My formal training is in visual graphic design, but my youth was squandered tinkering in ResEdit, hand-coding HTML, and deconstructing user interfaces. I’ll be making regular contributions about the graphical aspects of modern web development for the JTech Technical Blog.
Fast-forward to the present.
Two years and many workflow iterations later, we're reorganizing almost everything to accommodate an internet that's changing dramatically as we watch. The size and shape of devices used to reach the internet has become wildly variable; in fact, the only thing we can (generally) count on is that our work will be presented in a frame that resembles a rectangle.
Here's a guiding statistic: 45% of all 18-29 year olds who use the internet on their phones do most of their online browsing on their mobile device. That's enough to make you stop and think — will the website you designed for a conventional monitor turn people away when they try to use it on their phone?
Responsive web design.
There are a few solutions to the problem of providing an optimized experience on multiple screen sizes, but we’ve chosen responsive web design, an approach that delivers a single build that responds dynamically to the size of the screen being used. Responsive sites rearrange their layout and resize their text and images to provide a readable, beautiful experience at any resolution and on any device. The latest draft of our own website is the first site we've created that adopts responsive design principles, albeit with more “break points” than we’ll usually produce on client work.
As a designer, I'm scrambling to adapt to the challenges posed by responsive web design. Most of my challenges involve thinking in different viewports — rearranging, scaling, and showing or hiding elements of the website. Photoshop‘s role in the design process has been reduced— it defines the visual polish of the site, but plays a subordinate role to wireframes and behavior prototypes, where most of the work is done.
The puzzle of rearranging a website is sometimes called content choreography. This process gives the content a larger role in defining the design, because one of the earliest steps in developing a site's layout is determining the hierarchical importance of content — and which pieces of content need to remain associated with each other when the site is rearranged.
Scaling is a large part of content choreography. Should I scale the whole box, or just the content within it? Considering scaling has initiated changes in the way I create assets for the web. Because typography is universally-supported and fully-scalable, we've begun to build custom symbol-fonts for our new web projects (we started by using Fontello as a springboard). I collaborated with Patrick, our VP Technology, to build a symbol-font for the JTech site that we employ for our arrow buttons and close Xs. It not only scales well — it’s also lightweight and is easily animated using CSS. We've experimented with SVG and CSS shapes, but we’re limited by browser support and performance from using them extensively. On the latest iteration of the site we use CSS gradients in some places while employing raster images elsewhere to keep things snappy.
When our sites are viewed at extremes on either end of the spectrum — within very large and very small viewports — we need to do more than rearrange and resize the elements of each page's design. Perhaps the most common example of hiding complexity is primary navigation, which is often tucked away behind a menu button when the site is being viewed on a mobile phone or in a small window on your computer. Look at our website to see this in action — and see if you can spot some of the other content we hide for the mobile breakpoint of our site.
Redefining the workflow.
Our workflow continues to evolve as we change our web development goals. Layout is defined by wireframes — three different sets, at breakpoints for desktops, tablets, and mobile phones. Our wireframes are heavily annotated, with descriptions of how the site's design will morph as it deviates from our pre-defined resolutions. An example of this behavior: as the window gets bigger, column width may increase, the space between columns will grow, and the imagery will always scale so that it exactly fits properly. I want our websites to flex and grow naturally and look nice — even for scenarios that I haven't considered explicitly.
We use OmniGraffle (by the OmniGroup) to create our wireframes. It makes diagramming and layout simple — and most importantly, makes it easy to change things on the fly. For static layout, I find that OmniGraffle represents everything that Photoshop lacks. We augment these wireframes with behavior prototypes for interaction and animations, experimenting with tools like Adobe Edge and After Effects. This aspect of our workflow is very new and my own confidence in animation design is gradually growing as we integrate interaction into our designs.
Our workflow extends beyond our office — and beyond the goal of building a website that looks great regardless of the device. We also need our clients to understand what it means for their website to be responsive. When our clients are on board and understand that their website’s layout isn’t static, they will be better partners in defining the content and its hierarchy with us — in turn making their website an effective piece of communication. As I become more experienced designing responsive websites, I will in turn improve at articulating the responsive experience to our clients and how they should think about their website.
OK, so we're still figuring it all out.
The wild pace of change is what makes being a human interface designer exciting. Unsolved puzzles, new frontiers, and new details abound. I know I’ve just scratched the surface, and I’m eager to see what’s around the next bend.
I'm enthusiastic about all the changes coming down the pipe, and I'd love to hear from people who’ve experienced making the shift to responsive web design. If you can help us avoid your mistakes, even better! Drop us a line — we’d love to hear about your responsive design experience.