life hack: tips and tricks to make your digital life easier

31 05 2010

[life hack]

Wikipedia describes Life Hack as:

‘..anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way might be called a life hack. The term became popularized in the blogosphere and is primarily used by geeks who suffer from information overload or those with a playful curiosity in the ways they can accelerate their workflow.’

The blog Life Hacker assisted in popularizing this term and Wikipedia covers the history as ‘productivity tricks that programmers devise and employ to cut through information overload’ but the term has evolved to describe productivity tricks, tips for personal organization, and methods for efficient work processes.

The Life Hack tricks that I would like to introduce you to today (listed below) will assist you in your online working lives and may even make your University life easier as well…

1. working within a web browser

As students you are often working between stand alone computers (such as a laptop or your computer at home) and the networked computers on campus here at the university. You would be very familiar with the need to carry your work to and fro between the computer labs and your home on USB drives, CDs and other storage devices (eg: hard drive, zip drive, etc.)…but your digital life no longer has to be so complicated. Much of this tedious process can be avoided simply by working within a web browser.

Take for instance your theory essays and individual work proposals (IWPs), you do not need to carry a Microsoft Word file backwards and forwards between home and university any more – Google has developed online office tools in the form of Google Docs. With Google Docs you can easily create basic Word-style documents and spreadsheets from scratch and are able to perform tasks such as adding tables, inserting images, changing fonts, etc. – most of the commands that you would expect from Word itself. Google Docs is free and accepts most common file formats including DOC, RTF, PDF, HTML, etc.

Some advantages to using this online software are that you can store and edit your work from any computer with an internet connection and a standard browser, the service is free and you are not required to install any software on your computer. The major disadvantages to working in this manner include depending on an online tool which may or may not operate 24/7 and being reliant on a service which may disappear. However, you can easily work around these disadvantages by keeping regular ‘back-ups’ of your work – which you would normally do in any case – so the inconvenience is minimal.

Another free, browser based office suite available is Zoho. Zoho offers word processing, presentation tools, spreadsheets, planning tools and note taking tools – all of which would be useful to you as students.

2. note taking

In your day to day lives at university, and especially during the research phase in the lead up to essay writing, you would frequently have to take and store a variety of notes. There are free web applications that can help you to take and organize your notes, including:

3. social bookmarking

You will already be familiar with the notion of social bookmarking, having become accustomed to using, and you have all become acquainted with accumulating a list of bookmarks that relates to your work through the bookmarking that you have completed for your presentation research. It is for projects such as this, as well as for collating sites of interest, that social bookmarking becomes a very handy tool.

The video Social Bookmarking in Plain English, produced by Commoncraft, is a great introduction to this notion.

Aside from, another social bookmarking service that you might like to look at is Diigo (previously Furl). Ma.gnolia was also another popular social bookmarking site, however the public version of Ma.gnolia closed unexpectedly early last year – thus illustrating the major disadvantage of using such services.

4. mind mapping tools

Creating mind maps/brainstorming is one technique commonly used to generate and develop ideas. This technique allows you to visualize concepts quickly and easily and mind maps can be used in the process of designing/developing a website, planning a project, sorting through your thoughts for writing an essay – whatever it is, a mind map helps you to clarify exactly what is what. is one example of a free web based mind mapping tool. It would be very easy to create an account on and be mind mapping in less than 5 minutes – the interface is intuitive and can be understood quite easily if you are already familiar with the concept of mind mapping/brainstorming. After you have built a mind map on, you have the option to save it for access at a later stage, share it with someone (you may wish to collaborate on a project) or export it as a jpeg file to be used elsewhere.

Other browser based mind mapping tools include:

5. to do lists and calendars

I can’t speak for you as individuals, but many designer-makers and artists that I know (myself included) live by To Do lists – if I didn’t, something would almost certainly drop off the plate (so to speak). Irrespective of your workshop or specialization, there is always a number of tasks that have to be completed in a certain order to actually design & make an object or to bring any project together. You might have to source materials, seek advice, do some research, contact companies to find out material specs, locate a variety of resources for your project, you will have a process to work through in order to make the object, you would probably like to document and photograph the process and the completed work, and if you are going to exhibit the project or work you will have another To Do list all over again! To complete many of these tasks you would often be using email, searching the web for resources and contacts, seeking addresses and phone numbers…and each task would need to be completed by a certain date.

It is all too easy to have odd documents (a page here and a page there) floating in your user space at university or living on your USB stick or hard drive at home, and invariably they manage to be misplaced or lost, written over or they are simply not where you want them when you need them – they’re at home on your home computer when you are at uni or they’re at uni on your user space when you need them at home. It makes a lot of sense and is far more efficient to store them all in one place and online – this means that they will be accessible wherever you go so long as you have internet access and a standard browser. You would want to be using more than a simple note taking tool (as discussed above) for this type of activity, and this is where the free To Do list and Calendar web services come into their own.

A simple, free To Do list web application is Ta-da Lists produced by 37 Signals, who also produce Backpack (an intranet service for businesses).

There are a number of Calendar services online. Many people are beginning to use Google Calendar as it ties in nicely with the rest of the google apps and you can access it easily from the google apps space.

Another web based calendar service that you might wish to look could be Yahoo! Calendar.

6. images

You can store images online using sites like Flickr, which you should all be familiar with. Flickr is useful because you are not only storing your images online but you can also annotate and discuss your images as well as tag them so that they can be found easily and successfully by other users.

Another image hosting web service offered by Google is Picasa. Picasa offers 1GB of space for free before you need to pay to upgrade for more storage. Similar to Flickr, you can tag images and your viewers can leave comments, however there are fewer social features than Flickr – such as groups. Recently Google have doubled the size of the images you are able upload, from 10MB to 20MB per image, so now you can house quite large images on this site.

7. personalised online start pages

If you begin to use (or already use) any or all of these online services, I would suggest that you might like to set up a personalised online start page for yourself with links to all of the sites that you use regularly. The following services usually offer a way to check your web-based email, check your RSS feed, search the web and access a variety of services like your account and Flickr account. Basically they put all of your daily information and needs in one place…a few you might consider could be:

Think about the following 4 questions and post a comment which addresses these:

  1. Which of these life hack sites are new to you?
  2. Which of these life hack sites do you already use?
  3. Which of these life hack sites would you consider using? Why?
  4. Which of these life hack sites wouldn’t you use? Why?

web 2.0 technologies | a brief list

31 05 2010

This morning I would like to offer you a brief list of some popular web 2.0 technologies being used by artists and designers in professional practice. Some of these we have spoken about before and some will be new – the hyperlinks will enable you to browse through these sites more thoroughly and the list will hopefully prove to be a valuable resource for you in your future endeavours.

Blog Hosts |



Live Journal




Gather & Promote Online (social networking) |








Sell or Show Online |


Art Flock








Manufacture Online |






Engrave Your Book

This list is by no means exhaustive – there are many more web 2.0 technologies out there that you could certainly make use of – this is just a snapshot to get you started. Please feel free to leave comments about other web 2.0 technologies that you are aware of so we can add to this list.


29 05 2010


Bigcartel is perhaps more individualised and customisable than the previous 4 e-commerce sites I’ve written about. Many artists and designers use Bigcartel as an alternative option to hosting their own shopping area on their website.

So how does Bigcartel work? It is a subscription based service rather than being commission based. Free sign-up and the first account option is completely free as well…just with fewer features than the paid subscription options. You can find full details of the inclusions for all 3 package options here.

Unlike the other 4 e-commerce sites which host hundreds and thousands of stores within their site and these are very easy to find through store name, product type and medium, it is much harder to navigate through Bigcartel and view stores.

made it

28 05 2010


Made It is Australia’s answer to Etsy, ArtFlock, and DaWanda. Made It operates on a similar principal to all of the above sites…except that it stipulates that sellers must reside in Australia. All products sold must be handmade – no supplies or vintage items, simple registration process, 35c listing fee, 4% commission (increasing to 4.5% in July this year as Made It is registering for GST) and like Etsy, listings last for 4 months.

Made It also operates a forum to connect members.


27 05 2010


DaWanda is the European equivalent to Etsy and ArtFlock. It now operates on 3 platforms – English, French and German, with German being the largest of these so far.

Same process as the others – you need to register to become a seller (free sign-up process including payment details for how you wish to pay your fees) and you have an online shop space within DaWanda with a profile area and customisable banner. No listing fees on the French and English platforms (only on the German platform at this point), and 5% commission on items sold.

DaWanda also operate a blog and host a forum for member interaction.


26 05 2010


ArtFlock operates similarly to Etsy but is a UK version. If anything it is perhaps slightly more extensive than Etsy in terms of the products and designs that are listed and sold. It also has a higher average price point – there are a lot of cheaper products on Etsy whereas ArtFlock (listed in GB pounds) has items selling for hundreds and even thousands of pounds.

Free sign up, no listing cost but 3.5 – 15% commission fee when works sell (5% for the regular ArtFlock area) – the other percentages are for alternative spaces operated by ArtFlock…3.5% for website publisher which is a portfolio display area (similar to the store area you would have on Etsy) and 15% for items sold through (an interior decorator site).

ArtFlock also hosts a blogging community and is on twitter (365 followers).


25 05 2010


I’m sure many of you have already heard of Etsy – one of the largest e-commerce sites available for artists, craftspeople and designer-makers. Etsy is an online marketplace to buy and sell handmade. On Etsy you can sell any goods that are handmade by you; commercial or handmade crafting supplies; and vintage items (Etsy deems vintage to be items that are 20 years or older). To be involved you need to create an account and register your details – this is free and involves a simple sign-up process. Note that to become a seller (rather than just a buyer) you need to enter credit card details for verification purposes.

So how does Etsy work? When you sign-up to be a seller, you are given your own ‘store’ space online within the Etsy interface. Your store is customisable through a change in banner, your profile and your shop policies. You will also have your own definitive URL for your shop based on your username/store name, eg:

In terms of cost – it costs 20 cents (US) to list any item for 4 months. If your item does not sell during this time it expires and will cost you 20 cents to list it again. If your item does sell, you pay Etsy a 3.5% fee based on the selling price of the item. Each month Etsy makes paying these fees easy with an online bill which directs you through the payment process. At present you are only able to list in US dollars on Etsy but they are working on being able to list, buy and sell items in multiple currencies.

Aside from being a site to buy and sell handmade goods, Etsy is also a community offering forums, private messaging, chat rooms and a blog. Etsy is on twitter (1,256,329 followers), facebook (146,375 fans), myspace (19,252 friends), flickr (2,481 contacts, member of 50 groups including at least 3 of their own) and You Tube.

colour inspiration

24 05 2010

If you are ever stuck for colour inspiration one option that you have at your disposal is to use a colour palette generator, and there are numerous generators on the web – one that I have discovered recently in this Palette Generator provided by Big Huge Labs.

This particular browser based palette generator allows you to upload a photograph and create a palette based on the colours in the image. It is a helpful tool that may enable you to produce a coordinated colour scheme, especially if you are drawn to the colours in a particular image. Hexadecimal codes are given for the colours in the palette when they are generated which allows you to easily transfer them across platforms correctly.

direct digital manufacturing (DDM)

20 05 2010

Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM), also known as direct manufacturing, on-demand manufacturing or instant manufacturing, is a process that allows individuals to design items or products digitally and to create them physically utilising one of a number of manufacturing technologies including (but not limited to) rapid prototyping, publishing, laser cutting and digital printing.

Below are a few examples of companies/services offering DDM:

Ponoko claims to be the world’s easiest making system – and it just might be. In effect Ponoko is a hub that brings together artists/designers/creators, DIYers, buyers, material suppliers and digital fabricators. They mightn’t be able to do everything you need, bear in mind that the laser cutting process still has limitations, but you can certainly find a lot of information and have access to a diverse range of materials and knowledge in one place.

Ponoko was established at the end of 2007 – so it’s only 2.5 years old – and in this time it has been revolutionary. It has virtually reinvented how products can be designed, made and distributed on a worldwide basis. They describe what they do as ‘the trade in product design’. Ponoko host tens of thousands of product designs generated by users…and all of these are ready to be made at the click of a mouse.

In addition to hosting the designs, Ponoko are, perhaps more importantly, a digital making system. Product designs are priced instantly online and made in a hub that is as close to the point of delivery as possible. Ponoko have hubs in Wellington (NZ) and San Francisco (USA), and now also operate in Europe through Formulor in Berlin (Germany) and Vectorealism in Milan (Italy).

Ponoko is also an e-commerce site where you can make (your products), share (your designs), sell (your products and designs) and buy (other people’s products and designs). They are very efficient at using web 2.0 technologies to network and promote their business. You will find them on twitter (where they have 1,728 followers), facebook (where they have 1,125 fans), flickr (where their group pool has 125 members and 351 images), and they also host a blog on their website.

RedEye is a business unit of Stratasys and provides rapid prototyping and DDM (direct digital manufacturing) services to a global network. They operate from 3 continents (Australia, USA and Europe) and serve industries including aerospace, architecture, automotive, business machines, consumer products, electronics, medical devices, entertainment, interior design, toys and more.

They can build products with one of 8 varieties of production-grade thermoplastic materials through fused deposition modelling – an additive fabrication process that is infinitely repeatable, meaning that the first part that you build will operate, look and function exactly like the next, and the next, and the one after that.

Like Ponoko, you can register on their site, upload your 3D CAD files, receive a quote almost instantly and order your prototype online.

They are also branching into other web 2.0 technologies – they have a blog which is updated quite regularly, and they are also on facebook (which seems to be a newer venture as they only have 7 fans).

Shapeways, like RedEye, is a DDM service that offers rapid prototyping (also referred to as 3D printing).  Their ordering process is similar to the others – you place your order, they check your model, they produce it using rapid manufacturing technologies in one of 10 materials, and it will arrive on your doorstep in 10-14 days.

Shapeways define 3D printing as any additive manufacturing process – where ‘one machine turns a digital file into a finished physical object by building up that object layer by layer’. There are many types of 3D printing machines and technologies – SLS (Selective Laser Sintering), SLA (Stereolithography), FDM (fused deposition modelling) – used by RedEye, and LOM (laminate object manufacturing) are just a few.

You will also find that they have a blog and a forum, are on twitter (with 1,257 followers), utilise facebook (with 448 fans), and have their own channel on YouTube.

Café Press has been around for a while now and is located in Australia, Canada, and the UK, after having been established in the USA.

Café Press are a DDM service offering printing onto a range of items including clothing (t-shirts, hoodies and sweatshirts, tank tops, hats and caps, baby bodysuits, g-strings, and boxer shorts), bags and totes, mugs, water bottles, steins, posters, stickers, buttons, magnets, mousepads, ornaments, aprons, clocks, coasters, calendars, journals, greeting cards and keepsake boxes – you name it, they’ve got it!

As you might expect they have a blog, are on twitter (with a massive 13,746 followers), flickr (with 350 contacts and a part of 37 groups), facebook (with 12,123 fans) and YouTube.

RedBubble operates similarly to Café Press but is Australian through and through. They offer printing services for t-shirts and hoodies, greeting cards and postcards, calendars, framed prints, canvas prints, posters and gift certificates.

They operate a forum area where members can interact and run a blog on their site. They are also an e-commerce service where you are able to showcase your portfolio of designs and offer your products for sale on their site (but I will touch on them again next week in this context). Interestingly enough, they seem to be the only company/service in my examples that aren’t also involved with other social networking sites like facebook or twitter.

Blurb is a DDM service operating in Australia and the USA producing books on demand. In a few easy steps you can create and publish your own book and order one or multiple copies. Blurb make this process especially easy with their free bookmaking software, BookSmart , which is available to download from their website.

Pricing for books starts from $6.50 and they offer a variety of shapes and sizes, with a choice of stock options as well.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I tell you that they have a blog (which is powered by wordpress), and that they are on twitter (with 4,606 followers) and on facebook (with 10,911 fans).

Spoonflower is a DDM based in North Carolina, USA who offer digital textile printing on demand. They can digitally print designs onto a range of fabrics (7 fabric choices) and have made it possible for people to design, print and sell their own fabric – be they textile designers, or otherwise. Spoonflower was only established mid-2008, making them 2 years old.

They have a blog, are on facebook (with 3,232 fans), flickr (with a group pool of 4,784 items and 1,951 members), and twitter (with 3,128 followers).

producing readable text online

7 05 2010

Producing readable text online  comes down to a number of decisions…

Choosing the right font or font family for the job is important. These days the use of serif and sans serif fonts is relatively interchangeable. Everyone has an opinion on how they should be used and many studies are not recent enough to be conclusive one way or the other. Traditionally, especially in print media, serif fonts have been used for body copy as it is thought that the serif ‘feet’ help to guide your eye from one letter to the next, making for an easier read. However, sans serif fonts have become increasingly more popular as they tend to be more modern and open. Sans serif fonts have also established a prominence in web design given that the complexity of serif fonts at low resolution (as each letter is made up of pixels) makes them harder to read.

Sans serif fonts have become increasingly more popular and are usually my preference for body copy. Using any font (be it serif or sans serif) for headings and subheadings is fine…just make sure you are selecting the right font for the job. It is also up to your discretion whether you use serif or sans serif font for body copy. There are arguments for and against both sides of the equation, some of which are described above. For the most part serif fonts are still used for print media eg: books, magazines and newspapers; and sans serif fonts are prevalent in body copy within online spaces. For many of the online spaces that you are currently using you won’t have a choice – your fonts will be preset – but keep this in mind for next semester when building your own site. Bear in mind that this is a rather large topic and could be discussed in great depth…we are simply brushing the surface!

Think carefully about the size of the font that you use, particularly for body copy. Bear in mind that a demographic of varying ages might be looking at your online presence. It is best not to go much smaller than 11 or 12pt for reasons of legibilty. Personally I prefer 10pt but I know from experience that this can sometimes be too small for presentation on the web (depending on the font).