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Expression Design Microsoft Expression

Expression Design – Great vectors, annoying layers, terrible exports and more

I don’t know if my way is the right way but when I design sites I always start with the design itself. In the past I’ve used a combination of Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia (now Adobe) Fireworks to do this but Expression Design seemed to be a good combination of both so I decided to go all out Expression on this one. Here are my experiences:

GREAT VECTORS AND OK EFFECTS
Expression Design is a vector based program and is both intuitive and easy to use in this respect. For those who have fought with vectors in Illustrator (or even worse Photoshop) Expression Design’s way of handling those spline lines is vastly supperior. You have complete control over all elements of the vectors, all the regular tools and it’s easy to change colours, storkes, and gradients. One of the features I found most useful was the gradient transform panel that lets you change just about everything: Center point, gradient size, colour, angle etc etc. It also imports vectors from eps files with ease but not AI or pdf so yo uneed to convert all your stuff to make it work. I guess that makes sense.

Once the vectors have been built and you are satisfied you can apply a range of effects to them. Drop shadow, shines, blurs, fills – the standard Photoshop stuff. The effects library is not as extensive as one would hope but it has most of the stuff you need. When the effects are applied they are non-destructive and can be toggled on and off at will or piled on top of each other. Once the effects are applied the vector graphic turns into a raster graphic – but only for as long as the effect is on. you can toggle it off, change the vector and then toggle it back on again and see the effect change accordingly.

One thing I found very annoying about the effects was that they can only be applied to pre-programmed vectors. They work with standard shapes (ovals, squares, rectangles with and without rounded corners etc) but if you make a custom shape or even alter one of the standard shape vectors to say a spiral the effects panel simply disappears and you can no longer apply anything to the layer. The only way to work around this is to rasterize the vector and then apply the effect which defeats the purpose of the vector in the first place. This lack of functionality will undoubtedly cause a few headaches, especially because the set of “standard” vectors is very limited.

I was wrong on this one. My bad. Check this post for a full explanation.

LAYERS STILL HAVE A WAYS TO GO
I think layers have become standard in almost if not all major graphics programs so it’s no big surprise that Expression Design also incorporates layers. The layers in Design are much like those in Illustrator: Each layer is a parent to several objects or items that you can order within the layer or group into one object. But here the ends the similarities. While you can move objects around within the layer or move them to a different layer you can’t toggle their properties within the layer. For instance; the hide/show layer option is only available for the entire layer with all it’s underlying objects but not each individual object so you can’t just turn off one. You also can’t chose one object from the layers pallet – you can only chose the layer itself. To pick one object you must first chose the layer and then click the object within the actual design itself. There is also no lock/unlock all button which means there is no easy way of making all the elements editable or not – you have to click the pad lock on each layer individually.

The fact that you can’t select objects in the layer pallet also causes a lot of mistakes for people used to using Adobe products: I often delete individual objects under my layers from the pallet, but if you try to do this in Expression Design you end up deleting the entire layer with all it’s objects. The only way to delete individual objects is to select them on the stage and delete them from there.

All in all the layers need a lot more work before they reach their potential.

TERRIBLE EXPORTS
Once you finish your design it’s time to export. In Expression Design you can chose between a variety of different options but those people will use the most are undoubtedly XAML (the proprietory Expression language that interconnects seamlessly with Expression Blend), PNG, GIF and JPG. Seeing as I was designing a website I wanted JPG and gif files. Expression Design gives you a variety of options when exporting of which the crop marks feature really stood out. When exporting you can set crop marks and the program will only export what is within them. This makes it incredibly easy to export things like buttons because all you have to do is hide the layers you don’t want, set the crop marks and export to get just the button state you want and nothing else without messing up your design.

The problem is that even at it’s highest quality setting the JPGs look like crap. Considering they start off as smooth vector graphics the end result is downright appalling. When I exported my first JPG with a quality setting of 8 (which is what I use when exporting from Photoshop) I was stunned by the rastering on rounded corners and artifacts in the drop shadows. Even solid colours were littered with artifacts making the final export useless. I assumed this was because the 8 setting was lower quality than I was used to so I swithced to the highest resolution possible (12+) and tried again only to get a marginally better result. After many more experiments I realized that no matter what you do your exported JPGs will look terrible. The same can be said for GIF files. In the end all my exports ended up being PNG files which are acceptable although they still have ugly rounded corners. At least the PNG’s retain the original colour without adding ghastly artifacts in the process.

Exports to XAML are not surprisingly perfect but the compression of “normal” formats like JPG and GIF is so bad I can’t use the end result. It’s so bad I wonder if there is an actual programming error somewhere that’s causing it because a JPG from Photoshop exported at 3 is still better than one from Expression Design exported at 12.

OTHER IDIOSYNCRASIES
You encounter idiosyncrasies and weird issues right off the bat when opening Expression Design. One example is that the standard resolution of the artboard is 96pixels/inch. Anyone working with web or television knows that the resolution of all screens is 72pixels/inch so if you build something in 96 you will end up with one of two things: Either the end result is squished down making it smaller on the screen than what was intended or the browser will perform some on-the-spot compression ruining the graphic completely. I’m assuming this is done because Blend uses 96p/i as a standard (just wild guesswork on my end – I haven’t actually checked this) but it makes absolutely no sense from a design perspective.

Even more bizarre: I often use the PrintScreen /paste trick when starting out on a new design to get the right margin proportions in my layouts. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about try for yourself: Push the PrintScrn button on your keyboard, open your favourite graphics program, open a new document and press Ctrl+v (paste). You now have a picture of your screen you can edit. If you do this in Expression Design something unexplainable happens: The pasted image is somehow crushed – smaller than the original. I don’t even understand how this is done because when you zoom in to about 133% the resolution is intact but if you scale the pasted image up by the same degree it is lost. I haven’t yet tried to paste in other graphic elements but I am assuming the same thing would happen. This glitch (it has to be a glitch, there is no way this is intentional from Microsoft unless they’ve gone batshit insane) has to be fixed immediately because it causes endless problems and quite frankly makes me not want to use their program.

I’ll upload samples and illustrations in the near future so check back often.

Categories
Expression Web Microsoft Expression

Expression Web – What? A Bug Already?

Before starting with the Zufall project I decided I’d revamp the Pink & Yellow Media Blog and move it from Blogger to our own server. Having had great success with WordPress on both AndNowYouKnow.net and Dabbler.ca I decided to relaunch this blog using the same system. Should be easy enough seeing as I already have two other blogs running on the same server and I know how to set it up properly.

Staying true to the promise I made to switch to Microsoft Expression for all my work for a month I created a new site in Expression Web and started editing and uploading the files. For those of you familliar with WordPress installing the blogging software is very easy: All you have to do is unpack the zipped folder you get from their web site, make the necessary changes (username, data base name, password and such) to the wp-congig.php file and upload the whole package to your desired location on the web. Once uploaded a simple 3-step process is all that’s needed to take your blog live and away we go. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Whitespace? What whitespace?

After uploading all the files to my recently created subdomain blog.pinkandyellow.com I went to my browser and entered the address for the setup files. To my surprise I was met with a generated error message on the top stating:

Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at ../wordpress/wp-config.php:1) etc etc

Now all you WordPress experts will undoubtedly scuff and say that it’s simply a white space problem and point me to the Troubleshooting FAQ. If only it were that simple. As you can tell from the error message the problem should be in line 1 which only contains the <?php tag and nothing else. If the Troubleshooting FAQ was to be believed there was some extra white space in line 1 that needed to be deleted. Not so. In fact, there was no white space in the entire file no matter what program I used to inspect it (including Expression Web, Dreamweaver and even NotePad++). I theorized that there might have been something else wrong with the files so I deleted the entire site from the server, downloaded a fresh copy of WordPress, replaced all the files in my local folder, reset the wp-config.php file and uploaded the whole package to my server again. Same result.

At this point I started suspecting that there might be something wrong with the way Expression Web was uploading the files. To test this I deleted the files from the server using the site features on the server itself and uploaded the unaltered files to the server using DreamWeaver instead. To my surprise and confusion the error message was no longer there. To make sure this wasn’t a fluke I uploaded the whole site to a sub folder using Expression Web and the error message reemerged.

The conclusion

It seems like Microsoft Expression Web does something to php files on upload. What I don’t know but in all likelyhood it has something to do with whitespace. The program has a function for eliminating white space in html files that I didn’t test but seeing as the files were clean to begin with this shuldn’t have any effect (and the function was turned off anyway). Unless there is something I’m missing there must be some form of bug sneaking around inside the program that causes this issue. The question is if it’s a one-time occurence or if this is something that happens to all php files – in which case there is something seriously wrong with the program.

Categories
Microsoft Expression

Taking Microsoft Expression Suite to Task – And Blogging About It

Last Thursday Pink & Yellow Media were lucky enough to be invited to an event in downtown Vancouver presenting the new web and design tools from Microsoft: The Microsoft Expression Suite (you can read about the event in our our technology blog AndNowYouKnow.net). Seeing as much of Pink & Yellow Media’s business comes from web design this suite is right up our aley. The question is if it’s good enough to replace the current tool set we are using, namely Macromedia Studio MX2004 and Adobe CS2. To help us decide the people at Microsoft were kind enough to hand out copies of the entire suite to the attendees to try out. And that’s exactly what we intend to do.

In the days, weeks and months to come we will take the entire suite to task to see just how powerful it is and whether it makes things easier or if it’s just a different way of doing the same things.

We recently took on a web design project for a small upstart called Zufall and we intend to design the entire site using only Microsoft Expression (maybe with the exception of some photo editing in PhotoShop) to really give it a good run and see what it can do.

Stay tuned as we start grinding…