Tag Archives: advice

How Does Web Design Affect The User?

affecttheuser
We designers often feel saddled with the need to make our layouts compact and yet readable, everything beautifully-designed and yet fast-loading. And often, in the fever of design, we end up forgetting to make our pages actually usable (guilty as charged). When we’ve spent so much time with our graphic design creation, we tend to see it more as an extension of our pride and effort rather than an entity that needs to be intuitive and useful.

Based on this tendency, I have created a checklist for creating web designs that are both graphically pleasing and user-friendly. Bear in mind, most of my experience comes from my personal preference, but it also comes from many years of trial and error in web design. Beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, but usability is on trial today.

Color/Pictures

Do the design’s colors draw attention where you want it most?

In general, users’ eyes are attracted to the brightest or most interesting-looking color first. In your design, is there color beside or behind the element you want users to pay attention to first? If there isn’t, your users might be momentarily confused as to where to look first. (See point #3 for how to choose an interesting color that doesn’t take over the whole page.)

Do the pictures in the layout enhance the content?

When we design layouts, we can easily get too caught up in how pretty the pictures look in the layout, how well we’ve blended several pictures, etc. But we have to make sure that our designs’ pictures don’t take away from the content, but instead offer our “brand” or otherwise identify our site in the user’s mind.

Your graphics can be simple or complex, incredibly detailed or pixelated, but it’s got to make sense with the rest of the site. A grungy design can take away from a sleek technology-based site, for instance, and vice versa.

Do the colors “go” together?

Using complementary (opposite) colors in a web design can work to great effect when trying to draw attention to important elements (see point #1). But if there are way too many colors going on, the site design can cross the line between funky and tacky (like wearing too many patterns at once). Likewise, if your site has a monochromatic look, it may seem boring to users’ eyes. You have to throw at least something in there to break the tone-on-tone look, otherwise users won’t know where to look, or they will be turned off and navigate away from your site.

My fix: put in at least one contrasting or vibrant color into your layout, and for the rest of your color scheme, select colors that harmonize with each other. Then, you’ll have an “accent” color that draws attention to what you want to highlight, without overwhelming the rest of the page.

Content Organization

Is it easy to find site navigation?

I’ve seen it many a time–site navigation that is so darned tiny you can barely see it, and it’s tucked away close to the bottom of the page where nobody is going to find it. Place your navigation at or near the top of the page, and make it big and bold so your users immediately see it–otherwise you’ll have a lot of frustrated users on your hands!

Is it easy to keep reading the page?

Headings, subheadings, and a good amount of white space are essential, especially for long articles (such as the one you’re reading right now). If text is crowded together with no paragraph breaks, no headings, etc., then it will suffer from “Wall of Text” syndrome and no one will read it.

Is it easy to figure out where a particular page is located?

We designers can be awfully vague when we name our navigation links! Be careful that your navigation categories make sense and are immediately recognizable…even if this means typing a few more words into your navigation panel/bar than you’d really like to. (For instance: “Layout Info” is much more meaningful than just “Site Info”.)

Fonts

Let me preface this by saying that Web designers have long been trying to outdo each other by using the prettiest or most complex fonts they can find in their graphics. Nowadays, the font battles continue even on regular text in blog posts and pages, since designers have found custom font tools such as Typekit. (I still stick to the Web-standard Verdana, Garamond, Arial, Times New Roman, etc., but many designers have gone over to using custom fonts for everything.)

Fonts do, however, tell users more about our content than perhaps we intend; one funny chart about fonts’ true meaning (with a bit of bad language) puts this competition over fonts in perspective. (I read this chart and thought, “Finally, somebody else who can’t tell the difference between Helvetica and Arial!”)

While this lends a humorous angle to the “font wars,” we as designers do have some serious concerns to address when we choose fonts for our designs:

Is the font style easy or hard to read?

We often forget, in trying to make our site look inventive and cool, that the font actually has to be reasonably legible. Overly cursive, decorated, or symbol-like fonts may look really unique, but it makes it almost impossible to determine what letter is which, especially on small resolutions. When we choose fonts, we must make sure that our users can still read our content underneath the “icing” of the font. (Pet peeve: really cursive font that is set to a tiny size. STOP. DOING. THAT.)

Is the font size big enough?

Before you choose 10pt font for your body text, ask yourself: do you like looking at pages and pages of text in 10pt font? Most people will say that they don’t. Many web designers, however, resort to using 10pt font (and even smaller!) to try to cram all their content onto one page without the user having to scroll. This is not the best way to draw users to your site–if it’s hard to read, they’ll leave and not come back. If you want your user to enjoy your content, make your fonts big enough to read; after all, isn’t the content the reason you created the site in the first place?

Summary

Designing layouts is not just about creating a visual work of art–we’re also creating an INTERACTIVE work of art, one which our users must be able to navigate and use to their heart’s content. Being considerate and careful in how we use color, fonts, and content organization will make our layouts much more usable–which means more people will visit our easy-to-use, easy-on-the-eyes sites!

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo with CSS

bibbidibobbidiboo
For this post, I’m doing something a little different–I’m going to show, rather than tell. CSS is a magic wand for your HTML structure, but rather than go into the realm of technical details, most of which I’m not totally familiar with (LOL), I’ll illustrate just what CSS can do for your pages.

Without CSS: A Sad, Sad Layout Indeed


Click to view “Layout Without CSS” (in new window)

See what’s missing? The color, the organization–pretty much everything that makes a layout is not present, even though the divided layers are still there. Without CSS to direct how the divs appear and how they line up on the page, it’s just a linear, one-after-the-other presentation, along with the horrid default color scheme. The sight of bright blue links that turn purple when you click on them…ooh, it gives me the creeps. LOL

With CSS: It’s HTML, Now With Less Fail!

Now, see what happens when just a few touches of CSS are applied to the SAME EXACT layout!


Click to view “Layout With CSS” (in new window)

Look at all that has been added! A background image is present, as is a header image (like we talked about in last week’s web design article); the navigation links are styled more boldly and stand out when hovered over. Not to mention that the welcome and the “about this page” section are now placed side-by-side, taking up less vertical space. Most of all, the layout is pulled together with a tone-on-tone color scheme, blending with the header and background image to make a basic (but pretty) design. (Now, CSS can’t make your images for you, but it can sure position them and make them repeat! :D)

Seeing this drastic change is quite like watching your own Code Fairy Godmother wave her wand and transform your ragged HTML structure into a sparkling CSS layout. Now you, too, can go to the webdesigners’ ball!

Momentary Meditations

momentarymeditations
There are blessed moments I encounter–moments of living neither in the past or future, but in the massive and yet ephemeral present. Being aware of each second clicking by, the cool freshness of the air being drawn into my nose. Taking time to truly feel the grass blades tickling my flip-flop-clad feet, and to smell the light sweet scent of azaleas and wildflowers in the front yard. Sensing the mobile curvature of my spine as I hunch above a keyboard or stretch back against the computer chair. Knowing how the smooth plastic computer keys will give way just enough under my fingers to produce a letter on the screen.

It’s an odd, electric kind of feeling, as if a shade has been drawn up from over my eyes and I’m finally seeing life as it is. In these few seconds, thought and intellect give way to feeling and instinct, just for a little while. I can appreciate the visual beauty and symmetry of tree branches and buildings around me, pause to hear random harmonies of birdsong and traffic, weaving together like the woodwind and brass sections of a giant unseen orchestra. Touch and smell become many times more important; suddenly, I am aware of how soft and lovely the shirt I’m wearing feels against my skin, and realize that the breeze is blowing a faint wonderful scent of food cooking from a restaurant down the street.

These moments of sensory feeling and glimpses of present peace are usually rare for me. Too often I live in a world of past guilt and anticipation of the future, and I’m insensitive to all this wonder going on around me. (I think we all have days like that!) Sometimes I feel like nothing more than a shell of myself, “living” without really feeling it, while my brain is somewhere else entirely, worrying, fretting or just going around and around without solving anything. Often it seems like I’m actually forcing myself to relax, and yet my brain is resisting every second of it.

Momentary meditations on the world around me, actually sensing the environment around me, actually hearing and seeing things outside my own head, manage to snap me out of the foggy dreariness I usually shuffle through, make me feel more alive. It’s often not an instinctive thing, either; I have to shift my mindset, and hush my inner monologue. (Amazing how much more life can filter into your brain when you actually let yourself experience it rather than letting your brain talk over it!)

If you’ve never had one of these random moments of clarity, it can start as simply as looking around you and really seeing everything. I hope this post can be one of those moments for you–then, you might find that a shade has lifted from your own life.

The Cherry On Top–A Beautiful Header

thecherryontop
Headers (not the PHP file “header.php,” but the content at the top of each web page) are the first things that load on any web page, and they are nearly as important as good content and good navigational design. It’s the first impression of your website, the first inkling visitors have of your style and website content even before they’ve read anything. Making your website’s header as impressive and lovely as possible is a priority!

My Personal Experience with Headers

When I was first learning how to do websites in the fall of 2003, the style for many sites I visited was the iframe style, which didn’t actually get much of a header–in fact, the site’s style was generally defined by the use of a big background image over which the iframe floated. What we would now call the “header image” was just part of the background image–it was usually a stylized-text version of the site’s name and purpose.

However, this began to shift over the next few years, as CSS became more and more popular for designing page styles. I began to see more designs featuring a long rectangular image at the top of the page, with columns of information displayed below. I began to design more CSS-based layouts around this time, which is probably one reason why most of my layouts tend to have that same 900 x 200-pixel header image at the top–I found something that worked and I stuck with it!

This was around the same time that header images started being called “header images” in the web design field. Having a beautiful image at the top of your page often meant that you got a bit more attention for your site, and to some degree it’s still that way today.

Headers Today

But web designers today are not confined to just having a specifically-sized glossy image at the top of their page. There are actually many ways to style a header these days, and I’ll go into some of those styles here.

Navigation as Header


Image credit: EvolvingOctopus.com

Some sites, with a more compact style, choose to have their navigational links as their header. They might have the name of the site in a pretty or cool-looking font, and then right out to the side of that, or even above their site name, they have their navigation links.

This is great for web designers who want a very clean look, or they want their navigation up and out of the way so people actually see their content rather than just web graphics up front. This is also fairly mobile-friendly design (I say “fairly” because sometimes the bar of links can be too long for mobile screens to display properly).

With this style, you want to be careful that your navigation links are larger and clearly visible so visitors aren’t hunting all over the page looking for your content. Making the navigation links have a background color or eye-catching graphic effect of some sort can draw attention to it better.

Content Samples as Header


Image credit: Riyuu.org, now GeekyPosh.com

Pictures? Featured content links? Author information? Yes, all this can go in your header if you want it. Some web designers will place little teasers relating to their content in their header, so that when your page is loaded, visitors get an immediate taste of what your site is about.

This is great for web designers who want to highlight certain sections of their website, or to connect their sites to their social networking activities. I’ve seen people use a feed of Flickr photos, post their latest Twitter status, have a selection of featured articles, or just have a beautifully-styled Author Info section that makes you want to know more.

With this style, you want to be careful that you’re not overloading your header section with a ton of information–just a few pictures, a few links, or a small blurb of info is all you need. Otherwise, your users will be suffering from info overload before they’ve even scrolled down the page!

Simple “Text as Header” Design


Image credit: Devlounge.net

I’ve seen a lot of designs going with this header style lately–just a CSS-styled site title, often in a cool font in a large size, and with a shadowed effect to the text. This style is minimalist, bold and to-the-point.

This is great for web designers who want their site’s name to be the most important thing on the page–especially if you’ve gone around the Internet and done a lot of advertising, you don’t want your visitors forgetting what site they’re on!

With this style, you want to be careful that you’re choosing a font style with some punch–“default” fonts like Arial, Verdana, or Times New Roman just ain’t gonna cut it. You want a great-looking font, since it’s taking the place of a header image. Using the CSS property @font-face, which I recently learned about by visiting this article and this article on Devlounge, you can make your simple text header really amazing!

Summary

Headers can be intimidating–you want to make your site look amazing on first impression, after all!–but don’t let yourself be locked into one style, thinking that’s all you can do. If you’ve thought of another way to organize your site’s header, go ahead and do it; let your Muse dictate. Who knows, you might come up with the next big Web trend!

Connotation: The Search for the Right Synonym

connotation
When I taught 7th grade Language Arts, one of the biggest complaints I heard from my students was “Why are there so many WORDS for everything, when a lot of ’em mean the same thing?” My response: “These words don’t always mean EXACTLY the same thing.” And then I went and taught a lesson on connotation–the shades of meaning hidden in words.

Why Connotation is Important

Connotation gives writing a subtle descriptive power, without which most stories would fall flat. The choice of exactly the right word is like an artist choosing just the right shade of red or blue for a painting–the wrong shade can make the whole painting look “off” to the viewer’s eye, just as the wrong word choice can give listeners or readers a wrong impression. It might be a little detail, but it’s important!

In my writing, I often hunt for synonyms of words whose concepts I use quite frequently–for instance, the word “said” is a big thorn for me, because I don’t want my writing to sound “like an echo chamber” (which one of my graduate school professors told me my writing resembled–GRR). These days, it seems I’m always struggling to find a word I can use in place of “said,” but often there isn’t any really effective substitute. Nothing just SAYS “said” like “said.” (If that makes any sense…LOL!)

This, plus reading lots of other people’s writings about having the same difficulty, led me to think about writing with synonyms in general. When we choose synonyms for words we are using more often, we can often get tricked into thinking the synonyms mean EXACTLY the same thing as the word we are replacing–like my 7th graders thought. That, however, is definitely not the case.

An Example: The Word “Said”

Take the various synonyms and sorta-synonyms for “said”, as a convenient example (many thanks to Thesaurus):

add, affirm, allege, announce, answer, assert, break silence, claim, come out with, communicate, conjecture, convey, cry, declare, deliver, disclose, divulge, estimate, express, flap, gab, give voice, guess, imagine, imply, jaw, judge, lip, maintain, make known, mention, mutter, opine, orate, perform, pronounce, put forth, put into words, rap, read, recite, rehearse, relate, remark, render, repeat, reply, report, respond, reveal, rumor, speak, spiel, state, suggest, tell, utter, verbalize, voice, yak

WOW! Did you know there were THAT many apparent synonyms for just SAYING something? I sure didn’t, until I researched it. And yet, all these words don’t mean EXACTLY the same thing as “said.” They all do mean that something was spoken aloud, but beyond that, there are many shades and tones of meaning:

Add:
Implies that the person has already said something before this, or is adding to another person’s statement

Affirm:
Implies a positive rather than negative response to a question

Allege/Assert/Claim/Maintain/Put Forth:
Implies a forceful or accusatory tone of voice

Announce/Declare/Judge/Make Known/Pronounce/Utter:
Implies a loud tone of voice, but not necessarily an angry shout

Answer/Reply/Respond:
Implies a statement that simply answers another person’s question

Break Silence/Voice/Come Out With:
Implies a statement made after a long silence by other people

Communicate/Convey/Express/Put Into Words/Speak:
Implies a statement made over distance (like phone or email) or spoken in a neutral tone of voice

Conjecture/Guess:
Implies an opinion spoken without evidence

Cry:
Implies frustration or outrage, or even desperation

Deliver/Orate/Perform/Rap/Recite:
Implies a formal speech or structured words

Disclose/Divulge/Relate/Reveal/Tell:
Implies a quiet or possibly conspiratorial tone of voice

Estimate:
Implies a statement full of educated guesses or opinions

Flap/Gab/Jaw/Rumor/Yak:
Implies light or small talk, not of much importance

Give Voice/Verbalize/Voice:
Implies a spoken opinion which was either held back for a long time, or has been silently held by many other people in attendance

Imagine:
Implies an opinion expressing “what-if” situations, fantasy

Imply:
Means the statement has a hidden meaning or obscure connotation

Lip:
Implies comments that are rude or false (i.e., “paying lip service” or “getting lippy with someone”)

Mention:
Implies a casual tone of voice, maybe an offhand comment

Mutter:
Implies resentment or a sotto voce (under the breath) comment

Opine/Remark/State:
Implies a firm tone of voice, not casual in any regard

Rehearse:
Implies comments or questions that are being practiced

Render/Report:
Implies speech that is given to an authority figure

Spiel:
Implies speech that is part of a sales pitch or otherwise overly practiced story

Suggest:
Implies speech that is intended to be persuasive

And This is Just One Example of Connotation!

Looking at this list might be a little daunting, but it truly shows how diverse English can be, in terms of giving dialogue a little color and life. You can change the tone and mood of a sentence just by changing “remarked” to “suggested,” or by changing “mention” to “convey.” It gives your work subtle dimension, like using a pencil to shade a character’s face so that it appears 3-D on a page.

Including Connotation in Your Own Work

When you’re hunting for the right word, it really does help to keep a thesaurus nearby (either in paper form or by searching Thesaurus.com). It might seem like a writer’s cliche, but it does help with crafting better prose and poetry, just like gazing at a palette full of colors helps an artist choose just the right one for a part of their painting. Look up the word you think you want to use, and you might find one in the list that fits your needs even better!

Laying Out Your Page: When Pencil and Paper Trump Keyboard and Mouse

layingoutpage
One of the best things I’ve ever tried when trying out a new web design was to get away from the computer entirely. (Sounds weird, but it actually worked for me.)

My First Paper Layout Mockup

I was still fairly new to web design back in 2004; I was entirely self-taught, and was desperately trying to come up with something just as original and cool as the awesome designs I’d seen my Internet friends do. Problem was, I couldn’t figure out how to do what they did–how could I make the text of my page appear in this little bitty box in the middle of a beautiful background picture, like theirs? I couldn’t make heads or tails of the page sources I looked at, either. It was all just expanses of wild code, tangled and insurmountable…my creative mind was absolutely flummoxed.

Finally, in exasperation, I pushed away from the computer, got a sheet of notebook paper from one of my college notebooks, and literally drew out a couple of designs with the closest writing instrument to hand–a pencil. I knew I wanted the background image to be wispy and pretty, and I wanted the text to “float” on top of the background image. Even with my (very) limited art skills, I got down what I wanted, enough to know that I would need a scrolling box for most of my content, since the “box,” whatever it was made of, would be small.

I found myself referring back to this rudimentary drawing over the next few days, as I searched the Internet for “text boxes” and “scrolling boxes” and whatever other terminology I could try. Finally, a tutorial defined what I wanted (a text box that could float over a background image) as something called an “iframe.” This, coupled with the iframe tutorials I looked up later, revolutionized the way I designed sites completely. I learned how to create the background image in the graphics program I had at the time (Photoshop Elements 2.0), and, armed with the code, I began to create my first iframes layouts.

If I had never done that little sketch, I would have never been able to figure out how to make my site both easily updatable and trendy with current web designs of the day. I also would not have figured out one of the key elements of my design style: the less a user has to scroll to see vital site information, the better. Sketching out what I wanted was the first step–it was a new way to approach the problem, which in turn helped me research and eventually innovate.

Paper Mockups: Still Using ‘Em!

I still resort to using paper mockups when it’s just too much trouble to try to Photoshop something together, especially something that I’m not even sure will work. Good ol’ pencil/pen and paper are faster to pull up than Photoshop, for sure, and it’s easier to direct a pen precisely around the page than to move a laptop mouse cursor to attempt drawing something. Plus, something about actually touching a physical pen to physical paper makes me get into a better “designing” mood, and I end up with a better, more carefree result.

This is a recent mockup I did, for a possible new layout for WithinMyWorld.org (click for larger pic in new window):

layoutmockup

Not only do you get a sample of my horrendous handwriting (LOL), but you get to see a bit of the design process–I’ve mocked out where the sidebar and content will go, including RSS feeds, links, and affiliates, as well as possible image-map navigation, and a “pretty wavy background” that, for now, only exists in my imagination. 😀 Also, I included a couple of funny hints to myself, in the vein of “(maybe some fish?)” and “OMG BUBBLES!” 🙂 I think you have to have a sense of humor when you’re putting mockups together–it makes the process a lot easier to manage, at least for me.

Now You Try!

Try the website sketch idea when you’re stuck on a layout idea–it’s amazing what a pencil and paper can do in this day and age. You might just come up with something that you hadn’t thought of…like using hand-drawn bubbles as an image map. 🙂

Building a Better Team Support Toon, Part 2

betterteamsupport2
As I discussed in part 1 of this topic last Thursday, team support is made up of a conscientious playstyle and helpful powers. Part 1 showed how any player’s toon, no matter how damage-dealing, can be equipped with some team-support powers that boost effectiveness in large teams.

Today, I’m going to go through the natural team-support power trees available in the game–these are generally only available to Defenders, Controllers, Corruptors, and Masterminds.

Cold Domination

Available to: Controllers, Corruptors, Defenders
Best for: Debuffing enemies, buffing allies
Complete List of Powers

Cold Domination coats your allies in icy armor so that they can resist many types of damage; you can also slow your enemies’ movement, recharge rates, and even reduce their ability to damage you or your allies. It can be a great fit for an Ice Control Controller who wants to maintain thematic attacks, or really for any of the three builds to get some strong debuffs and buffs.

Dark Miasma/Darkness Affinity

Available to: Corruptors, Masterminds, Defenders; Controllers get Darkness Affinity instead
Best for: Healing, resurrecting, & hiding allies; debuffing and holding enemies
Dark Miasma Power List/Darkness Affinity Power List

Dark Miasma/Darkness Affinity does a little bit of everything–a little heal and rez, a little stealth, a little scaring the pants off your foes, and even a little damage thrown in there for good measure. You generally suck health or stats away from the bad guys and give it to yourself and your team around you. It’s a great power set for toons who need to be a backup healer for a team, since the heal and rez both require Accuracy checks to work, but I have also had success being the main healer for a team on a Dark Miasma Corruptor. Playing your Dark Miasma/Darkness Affinity character carefully (i.e., not running into the fray like a Tank–guilty as charged) will yield better results.

Empathy

Available to: Defenders, Controllers
Best for: Healing, resurrecting & buffing allies
Complete List of Powers

Empathy is the go-to set for healing, for the most part, but it’s not the only healing set out there. It is, however, a set that doesn’t require Accuracy checks for healing. You can boost your allies’ Regeneration and Recovery rates (how fast they heal and regain endurance), as well as buffing them against all types of damage, and helping them resist negative status effects like Sleeps and Holds.

Force Field

Available to: Defenders, Controllers, Masterminds
Best for: Buffing allies, controlling enemies
Complete List of Powers

Force Field ally buff powers help your allies avoid getting hit in the first place; the occasional foe captures, knockbacks, and disorients you can fire off help your teams survive big enemy spawns. It’s not one of the more popular choices, but I find that Force Field toons just make the rest of the team’s jobs easier. It’s easier to mow down enemies when you’re not taking as much damage, and with your enemies either struggling to get back on their feet or wandering around drunkenly, it’s a much shorter battle. You, as the Force Field toon, may not do a lot of damage, but you are invaluable to the team.

Kinetics

Available to: Defenders, Controllers, Corruptors
Best for: Healing and buffing allies; debuffing and controlling enemies
Complete List of Powers

This set, along with Empathy, is renowned for its buffs (Speed Boost and Increase Density, for instance), but it’s also a passable healing set as well as a debuff set. I don’t have a lot of experience with my Kinetics character so far, but in the midst of battle, she’s very efficient at pulling health off bosses (much like Dark Miasma). I also find that the debuffs, much like Force Field, make the team’s job of owning face much easier–it pulls away speed and Recovery rate from your enemies, weakening them.

Nature Affinity

Available to: Controllers, Corruptors, Defenders, Masterminds
Best for: Heals and buffs with a few debuffing effects
Complete List of Powers

This power set forms a perfect thematic set with Plant Control, since most of its powers are defensive and protective. LOTS of healing, lots of buffing, and just a bit of enemy damage through poison and holds means that Nature Affinity is a good alternative to Empathy, Radiation Emission, and Kinetics. (For instance, Lifegiving Spores giving both +Regen and +Recovery? AWESOME!)

Pain Domination

Available to: Corruptors, Masterminds
Best for: Healing with a large side of combat boosts and tricks.
Complete List of Powers

Pain Domination is like Empathy with teeth–you’ve still got heals and buffs, but there are some seriously powerful enemy debuffs hidden within those powers, too. This is a great set for a multitasking healer who doesn’t have time to heal/buff and damage/debuff in separate actions. (Conduit of Pain as a retaliatory Rez is hilarious!)

Poison

Available to: Controllers, Corruptors, Masterminds
Best for: Damaging enemies, healing and buffing (occasionally)
Complete List of Powers

Poison is best for somebody who doesn’t want or need to play healer much, but does want to debuff enemies in all sorts of ways, reducing defenses, resistances, speed, To-Hit, and even Regen rate. There are some healing/buffing powers, and even a limited Rez (Elixir of Life), but this is more in the capacity of “emergency healer” rather than “primary healer.” Bright side: the debuffs alone should make it pretty easy for a team to mow through enemies, rendering the healing less necessary anyway!

Radiation Emission

Available to: Defenders, Controllers, Corruptors
Best for: Healing, resurrecting, and buffing allies; debuffing enemies
Complete List of Powers

This power set is one-half of the popular Controller build called “Ill/Rad,” or Illusion Control/Radiation Emission. It’s a potent healing set, not quite on par with Empathy, but pretty close, from my estimation. I’ve seen Radiation Emission toons be the main healers of a team, or sometimes the secondary healer–it depends on your playstyle. They also are great for debuffing enemies, bringing down their ability to recharge, to move quickly, to damage you or your allies, or even be able to hit you at all. There’s also a surprising damaging attack late in the set, when all else fails!

Storm Summoning

Available to: Controllers, Corruptors, and Masterminds
Best for: Debuffing and controlling enemies; buffing and healing allies
Complete List of Powers

I’ve played a Storm Summoning Controller for a good while, and I find that the power set is best for locking enemies in place and debuffing them. Heals and buffs are few and far between, which means that your Storm Summoning toon won’t be the main healer, but you can be backup healer in a pinch. The storms are great for debuffing and knocking around your enemies, and it does a good bit of damage (at least, for a team-support character!). While they’re busy trying to recover from what you’ve done to them, your teammates are mowing ’em down. Fun fun!

Sonic Resonance

Available to: Defenders, Controllers, Corruptors
Best for: Buffing allies, debuffing enemies
Complete List of Powers

This is a pretty basic set, and not a very popular one…but I disagree with popular opinion. Played right, your Sonic Resonance toon can make enemies up to 50% less resistant to all types of damage. What does this mean? It means that your team mows through high-level bad guys as if they were your level, demolishing them in 5 seconds or less rather than standing there slashing for close to a minute. (I didn’t know just how much this would make a difference until I played a Sonic Resonance toon of my own, and saw how cool it was.) Debuffs aside, there are also some great team buffs for Defense and Damage Resistance, but you need to be in the middle of your team to make sure everybody is getting the benefit.

Thermal Radiation

Available to: Controllers, Corruptors, and Masterminds
Best for: Healing, resurrecting, and buffing allies; debuffing enemies
Complete List of Powers

This set is more like Empathy in that none of your healing powers require an Accuracy check; however, your buffs and debuffs make up more of your power tree. Thermal Radiation toons help their teams by keeping them shielded from harm, boosting their fighting abilities, and drawing stats away from your enemies. I don’t have a lot of experience with my Thermal Radiation character as of yet, but I like how her powers work so far–everything helps my teammates, even when I target an enemy!

Time Manipulation

Available to: Controllers, Defenders, Corruptors, and Masterminds
Best for: Recharging allies’ powers, boosting ToHit, healing, and enemy debuff
Complete List of Powers

Time Manip toons help with combat by boosting +Recharge, +Damage, and +ToHit, as well as bringing down enemy defenses and resistances…AND there’s healing, too! It’s an excellent power set for somebody who doesn’t just want to be “the healer” for a team, since these powers facilitate battle for the rest of the team. (Farsight and Temporal Selection are standout buffs, while Temporal Mending looks like a great Heal!)

Traps

Available to: Corruptors, Defenders, Masterminds
Best for: Enemy debuff and damage
Complete List of Powers

Traps aren’t necessarily your typical “team support” tree, but they can help a team weaken/get rid of very large mobs, which is supportive in its own way, much like Controllers’ Primary Power Sets. A Traps toon can’t do much healing, but the Force Field Generator and Triage Beacon can help in a pinch. Otherwise, you can pretty much pick your preferred flavor of debuff (Caltrops, Acid Mortar, Time Bomb, etc.), and run with it!

Trick Arrow

Available to: Controllers, Corruptors, Defenders, Masterminds
Best for: Enemy debuff
Complete List of Powers

Trick Arrows are purely for negatively affecting enemies, nothing else. Pull a Hawkeye and bring an arrow for all occasions–keep your enemy from flying, recharging their powers, recovering endurance, dealing damage, etc. Or you can use a couple of the arrow types to hold them in place, make them slip, or even put them to sleep! A toon with Trick Arrows can thus help a big team manage lots of enemies. (And, if you happen to be playing with a Fire toon, shoot a few Oil Slick Arrows for extra fun.)

Summary

Building a natural team support toon takes having a general idea of what you want to do with your team support powers, and which toon archetype you want to build on (Defender, Controller, Corruptor, Mastermind). But there are literally dozens of combinations that can make you able to support any team you work with!

A Jungle of Strange Words: My Forays into PHP and MySQL

ajungleofstrangewords

My current experience with PHP and MySQL has not been all tiptoeing through tulips. More often, it’s slashing my way through somebody else’s jungle-y code, trying desperately to understand how each part of the code functions, why even the smallest comma or space throws everything off, etc.

I’ve struggled with various projects in the last few years, mostly working on getting PHP to display results from a MySQL database. One of those projects is this very blog, which is now working beautifully after a few false starts. The other, a Magic: the Gathering trades database, never would find search results the way it was supposed to despite hours of debugging and reworking. (I finally got tired of struggling with it and screaming at it after about a YEAR–I was never so happy to hit the Delete button in my entire life.)

The Problem I Face (and What Most Newbie Programmers Face)

The bottom line is that PHP and MySQL are two of the more logic-based, technical Web programming languages out there. It has been far more difficult to teach myself PHP and MySQL than it was to teach myself HTML and CSS, because the vocabulary is so different, and the syntax is hard to read. From this newbie’s perspective, some of PHP and most of MySQL just hasn’t made sense at all; it’s just dollar signs and semicolons everywhere, and thus debugging it is a lost cause (as I discovered).

More experienced programmers might ask, “Well, why not just Google it and learn from tutorials?” There’s a problem with most tutorials available on the Internet; they are simply not written for actual programming newbies. They contain far too many technical words that are not easily defined–terms that someone with experience would know right away, but which a complete newb to programming would be confused by.

But Never Fear! Help Is On the Way!

Thankfully, after much, MUCH searching, I have discovered a few simpler, well-paced and fully-explained tutorials available to PHP and MySQL newbs like myself:

In some of these tutorials, I have found long-searched answers to some of the most basic MySQL and PHP questions I’ve had–questions which undermined any knowledge I tried to take in. With those now answered, I think I’m finally on my way to understanding. Check them out, and see if these careful explanations work for you!

The Enemy of Creativity: Self-Censorship

theenemyofcreativity
Writing is a creative process, sometimes just randomized brainstorming and fitful starts, sometimes fluid composing that only stops when your fingers or brain cells are too tired to go on. I’ve been writing ever since I can remember–one of my first short stories was composed on a steno notebook belonging to my dad, written in blue highlighter. (Maybe not the best choice, but as a six-year-old, I chose the tools close to hand!)

In childhood, I would hear about “writer’s block” as being this terrible condition that befell all writers at some point. But I used to think I never suffered writer’s block, because ideas for a story always came so easily to me–the words just flowed, and it sounded good to my ears and looked good to my eyes. It was much later, as I grew up and began writing for schoolwork or for other people to read, that I began to experience writer’s block in earnest. For me, that choking, halting sensation of just not knowing what to write next alarmed me. Was I losing my touch?

The Root of Writer’s Block: Self-Censorship

This feeling has come back sometimes while composing my novel, and at first, I was afraid that I was running out of ideas for the story. As I probed the feeling of writer’s block, however, I discovered that it wasn’t simply a lack of ideas–it was a lack of presentable ideas, ideas that other people would like. I was censoring my ideas, trying to make the novel immediately something that “other people” would like, rather than just writing what I felt was best and reviewing it later. Though I’m not sure that self-censoring was the complete source of my earlier writer’s block, I’m pretty sure self-censorship came into the picture at least a little, since I’ve been a perfectionist most of my life (LOL).

This Can Happen to Anyone

Self-censorship can strike at any time–when you have that little tingle of unease in your brain that signals “Ooh, I don’t know how good this is,” or when you are having difficulty producing part of a story because you’re afraid it’s all been done before. This is the enemy of creativity: when you hold yourself back, your writing becomes more stilted than ever, and you end up producing something that reads as if it’s afraid to come off the page. This censoring process, which starts out with good intentions (wanting to produce “good” writing that will be enjoyed and accepted), ends up just hamstringing you.

How to Beat Self-Censorship

Don’t let your personal judgment get in the way of your actual writing process. Write first and judge later. Seriously. You can always edit, erase or backspace if you review your writing and don’t like what you see, but if you don’t produce any writing in the first place, you won’t ever explore your ideas. (Who knows, you might write something that is utterly beautiful and life-changing to someone else, even if you think it’s nothing special!)

Also, don’t be ashamed if you have to go back and rewrite something several times over to get it “right.” Your taking the time to rewrite something that has already been put on paper/typed up in a document is a positive sign of writing development–and that development can’t take place until the original thought is put down in visual form somehow. Writing is not something you produce perfectly the first time (something I’ve had to realize the hard way); it’s something you imagine into existence, shape and sculpt, and then sand and polish until it gleams. Don’t let your desire for the polished finished product keep you from imagining.