Thursday, 4 June 2015

It gets my back up…!

Or, more accurately, my back-up.

I've been startled over the course of this year so far to see the number of fellow creative professionals who've reported disruption to their schedules, or the loss of their work, due to hardware failure or data loss. Now, admittedly, before my life in comics I spent several years as a production manager, meaning that a non-trivial fraction of every working day was spent worry about contingency plans, but if you do any work of value on your computer, from paid freelance to work to cataloguing family photos to saving your favourite recipies, then, forgive my bluntness, but this is the best advice anyone is going to give you today:

Back your shit up.

(I'm going to talk about Macs, because I own Macs, and I know Macs. If anyone wants to chip in Windows/Linux back-up solutions in the comments, please feel free.)

If you own a Mac, you already have a head start, because you have Time Machine. It's built-in, it's designed to be a back-up solution for people that don't use back-up solutions and people still don't use it! External USB hard drives are cheap. Buy one that's at least the same size as your internal drive; plug it in; your Mac will actually ask you if you want to use it for Time Machine. Click "yes" and you're done. Your Mac will now invisibly back itself up every hour until the drive is full, and then it will ask you if you want to a) switch to a bigger drive, or b) start deleting the oldest back-ups.

Level One:

Time Machine is Level One of my back-up strategy. The external Time Machine drive is twice the size of my Mac's internal drive, so it keeps back-ups of my entire drive going back a decent length of time. I use it less for protection against data loss than almost as a versioning tool, and insurance against accidentally deleting or overwriting files. Meant to go "Save As" to create a new version of your file, but hit "Save" instead? No problem. Do your "Save As" and then use Time Machine to retrieve the old version of the file you've just over-written. Deleted a file only to discover that you actually still needed it? No problem, assuming that it was on your system for over an hour, Time Machine still has it.

If you own a Mac, enable Time Machine. Do it. You have no excuse. Short of USB ports? No problem — Apple sells the Time Capsule, which doesn't even need to be attached to your machine. Your Mac will back itself up over wifi.

Time Machine is great (as an aside, you can also use it migrate the entire contents of your computer* to a new Mac painlessly) but it has one key problem: it doesn't create a bootable back-up.

Level Two:

If your Mac's internal drive fails and your machine won't boot, you can't start it up from a Time Machine back-up. If you hold down ALT (Option) at start-up, your Mac will look for alternative drives from which to boot. If the normal boot drive has failed, it will automatically look for another drive for start-up, and your Time Machine back-up ain't it.

Which is why I have a second external drive hooked up to my machine. This one is a portable drive the same size as the internal. There are lots of third-party back-up solutions, but I use Carbon Copy Cloner

Because you can schedule CCC back-ups, and you can schedule your Mac's start-up time, my machine auto-boots at 6:00am and at 6:15, CCC makes a bootable clone copy of the hard drive, which takes about 20 minutes. By the time I sit down at my computer in the morning, the entire drive has been backed up, meaning that, in the event of a complete drive failure, I can boot from the clone and, at worst, I will have lost whatever work I've done that current day, since the CCC back-up. If you have the luxury of a lunch break, or time when you're reliably going to be away from your machine, you could set CCC to do one or more back-ups during the day.

(This is not to say you can't work while CCC is running — you can, but the machine slows down noticeably, and the back-up takes longer, so there's a trade-off.)

Level Three:

Archiving. Particularly if you're doing a full-time job, internal drives fill up rapidly, so it's sensible to have a third drive for archiving off old jobs. Fairly recently, I realised that this drive wasn't getting backed up by Time Machine. Now, I could add the archive to the Time Machine preferences, but this is largely static data, so backing it up hourly seems like overkill. I used to keep a rolling system of backing up to DVD, but optical media isn't always as reliable as people like to think, and the process was time-consuming and required extra record-keeping to maintain an index of what projected were archived to which disks.

So I bought a 4TB RAID1 drive. It's actually two standard 4TB drives in a single box. In a RAID0 configuration (these sound complicated, but it's literally a tick box to configure in the software) both drives are used to write data and the drive appears as a single 8TB drive.

I have no idea why anyone uses RAID0. You have no data redundancy in this configuration and if either drive fails, all your data is gone. In RAID1 configuration (the default it ships with), identical data is written to both drives simultaneously, so it appears as a single 4TB drive on your desktop.

In the even of a drive failing, I can simply order a replacement, carry on working from the still-working drive, and replace the failed one when the new drive arrives. Yes, it's possible that both drives might fail simultaneously, but we're entering mathematically improbable levels akin to my house being totalled by a falling jet airliner. Possible, but not really worth losing sleep over.

(There are higher RAID configurations, but RAID2, 3, 4, etc, simply describe more complex configurations of larger numbers of drives.)

Level Four:

I haven't yet implemented Level Four, but I'm mindful that I'm still vulnerable to, say, burglary or a house fire, so I'm currently investigating off-site back-up options like CrashPlan. Services like Dropbox might look like an option for off-site back-up, but I don't think they guarantee the integrity of your data, and I'd like something a little more solid. I'll update this article when I've made some progress with this.

For most people, you don't need to go further than Level One, or Level Two, but take a moment to stop and think about what's on your computer.

Now think about how you'd feel if it was all gone. Think about how much it would cost you to recreate lost work. Think about what can't be replaced at all: family photos, correspondence… yes, some of this might be recoverable if you kept it in some Cloud services, but you're entirely reliant on someone else to look after what's precious to you.

Data storage is cheap. Backing up is easy.

Back your shit up.

*Except Adobe CS products, which can't be migrated. You have to de-authorise your current Mac, run a Time Machine back-up, plug the Time Machine drive into your new Mac, restore everything except your CS applications, then install your CS apps fresh from the original installers. Thanks a bunch, Adobe.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Illustrator: Quick Tip of the Week #2

A lot of people seem to struggle with the difference between the Selection tool and the Direct Selection tool (the black arrow and the white arrow respectively at the top of your toolbox).

In simple terms, the Selection tool (black arrow, hit 'V' on your keyboard to use) is for moving, rotating and scaling whole objects or groups of objects, while the Direct Selection (white arrow, hit 'A' on your keyboard to use) is for manipulating objects within a group, or individual points or segments of a line within an object.

But you can also use the Direct Selection tool to extract elements from a group or a merged object without ungrouping or releasing.

Assuming that you're using the ALT-Add Shape To Area version of the Pathfinder merge (which leaves the elements of the merged shape as individual objects, rather than creating one new shape) then you can pick up one element of a group with the Direct Selection tool, then cut and paste, which will remove the element from the group and leave the rest of the group intact, which is much quicker than ungrouping, selecting, moving or deleting an element, then re-selecting the remaining objects and re-grouping/merging.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Illustrator: Quick Tip of the Week

Illustrator is a strange piece of software, full of not-very-obvious features and counter-intuitive processes. I've met people who've used the application for years and were unaware of tricks and techniques I thought everyone knew…! By the same token, I've talked to people who've only been using Illustrator for a relatively short time who knew things that had passed me by completely…

So… I'm going to post an Illustrator tip every few days until I run out of things to say! Feel free to ask questions or offer tips of your own in the comments. I'm running CS6, so also feel free to correct me in the comments if any tip I come up with works differently (or doesn't work at all) in different versions.


ALT (option) DRAG any object, or group of objects to create a duplicate. The layer(s) of the original item(s) will be preserved in the new versions.

Why not just copy and paste?
Because ALT-DRAG doesn't use the clipboard. If, for the sake of argument, you already have the text you want to use copied to the clipboard and you want to duplicate a balloon and text box so you can just paste the text in, this is the method for you.

Also, copy and paste just dumps a duplicate slightly offset from your original, which you then still have to drag to where you want it. ALT-DRAG eliminates the need for the copy/paste, incorporating the copying into the same action as positioning the new element.

I keep forgetting to hold down the ALT key before I drag…!
You can add ALT to the drag operation at any time right up until you release the mouse button to end the dragging. By the same token, if you change your mind and release ALT at any point up until you release the mouse button, the operation will revert to a normal 'move' instead of a copy.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Death and Taxes… but mostly taxes.

Folks, for some of you, this is important!

Non-US freelancers… do you work for any US publishers? If so, do they have an up-to-date W8-BEN form on file for you? This is the declaration that that you are not a US citizen/resident and are not liable for US income tax. If your client doesn't have one of these, the IRS can insist that US income tax is deducted from your payments at source.

You don't have to deal with the IRS in the United States, but you do need to ensure that each of your US-based clients holds a copy of this form for you, assuming you deal with them as an individual (sole trader) and not as a limited company or other trading entity.

You can download a W8-BEN here:

And there are instructions on completing the form here:

To be honest, the instructions are nearly as confusing as the form, but the form is actually pretty straightforward, as far as I can tell.

The only bit that looks a little tricky is Part I, Sections 5-7, which, after some fevered Googling, seems to go like this if you are a UK taxpayer.

  • 5: N/A
  • 6: The UTR (Unique Taxpayer Reference) you use in all your dealings with HMRC
  • 7: Leave blank — this is for your client to add additional info when they submit the form.
Please note that I am not a financial adviser, and if you access to one, or if you use the services of an accountant, I would urge you to talk this through with them.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy 2015!


Another year goes past without any content being added to this blog, for which I can only offer my now-traditional apologies.

If anything, this poor, neglected blog has been a victim of my success, with somewhere north of 6,500 pages lettered in 2014, an average of 19 per day, every single day of the year. In all honesty, it was too much, so I've pulled back a little and will try to do slightly fewer books in 2015, but perhaps do them better.

And maybe do a little drawing, and some writing. Some of it may even be in the form of posts to this blog!

In the meantime, get yourself over to Comicraft's website for the traditional New Year's Day Sale — all fonts a bargain $20.15…!

I'd also like to offer my thanks to everyone who's hired me to letter their book or design their logo in 2014. Over-commitment, blood pressure scares and adventures in emergency dentistry have meant this hasn't, perhaps, been my finest year but I hope that hasn't been too apparent in my work. Still, 2015 shuffles into view with moves afoot to address all those things, so it's onwards and upwards.

See you in the funny books, folks!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year! Get The Fonts In!

Just a quick drive-by posting to wish all and sundry in the blogosphere a happy and prosperous 2014. May the coming year be kinder to you all than the previous one.

Also, a quick reminder that today only is the Comicraft New Year's Sale — all fonts just $20.14, so now's the time to head over to the site and grab a bargain (or three). Click here to visit the site.

Exciting things are coming creatively for me in 2014, not all of them lettering-related and I hope to be able share some news about them as I spread my wings a little…

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Head In The Clouds…? Saying 'No' to Adobe

Soapbox time, I'm afraid…

I can't help but contribute to the general furore over Adobe's Creative Cloud strategy. I know a lot has been said about this already, but I feel incredibly strongly about this.

For context, I have been a Photoshop user since v1.0 and have used every major version since then, excepting CS4, which I skipped. I've been an InDesign user since v2.0 (not CS2, but 2.0) and was a strong advocate in pushing two companies from a Quark/Postscript workflow to an InDesign/PDF one when Quark were fumbling the ball around XPress v4/5 and Adobe was picking it up with the original CS1 bundle.

Adobe has had an integral place in my workflow since about 1994. Their software, along with Apple's Macintosh platform, has played a major role in shaping my working life and the (primarily print-based) industries in which I've worked.

I have no axe to grind with Adobe; in fact, they have amassed an enormous amount of my goodwill over almost two decades.

But no more. With Creative Cloud, Adobe has demonstrated such unbridled contempt for its customers, that I have no option other than to vote with my wallet.

In case you've been living in a cave for the last few months, here is a very quick summary of what Adobe has done:

Previously, as an Adobe customer you would buy one of a range of software bundles that most closely suited your working practises. If you only used Photoshop, you'd only buy Photoshop. If you specialised in Web design, you might buy a bundle that had Photoshop, Flash and Dreamweaver, or one with Premier, After Effects and Audition if you were working with video and audio. The first time you bought one of these bundles (all branded under the Creative Suite —CS— label) it would typically cost you anywhere between a few hundred pounds and a couple of thousand. Thereafter, you could take advantage of upgrade pricing whenever Adobe put out a new CS version or choose not to if the upgraded feature set didn't offer anything compelling.

Adobe has recently announced that, as of CS6, there will be no more CS versions, replaced instead by their new strategy, Creative Cloud.

Here is how Creative Cloud works:

One can either pay for a single programme of your choice, and pay £17.58 per month, or £46.88 per month and get access to all of Adobe's programmes. You download the software direct from Adobe's servers and it runs from your own hard drive, just like all the previous versions. The only difference is that, once a month, it dials home via your internet connection and checks with Adobe that you are paying the monthly fee. If you've stopped paying, the software stops working.

Let's run through my objections:

1) This has nothing to do with delivering benefit to customers. Adobe have been utterly bare-faced about this; monthly subs even out the peaks and troughs of their cash flow.

2) This has nothing to do with piracy. Creative Cloud has already been hacked by pirates so it can be run without paying the monthly fee. Every single person that was running Adobe software illegally will continue do so without paying a penny. The only people affected by this are Adobe's legitimate customers.

3) The pricing is outrageous. US subscribers pay $50/month. UK customers pay £50/month — that's almost $75. Adobe has been challenged on their discrepancy of their European pricing before and have hidden behind vague excuses about shipping and regionalizaton costs. Now that the software is downloaded from central servers, these excuses are exposed as a lie.

4) The pricing is outrageous. If you used to purchase Adobe's most expensive bundle (Master Collection) and you upgraded it every time Adobe released a new version then you will save money on Creative Cloud. Every other customer gets screwed.

The thing is, very few customers use Master Collection, because very few people who design for print also edit video; very few people in Web design need a fully-featured DTP package. Almost no one, in fact. The vast majority of Adobe's customers used one of the cheaper bundles.

My last upgrade to my Design Standard bundle cost me less than £300. Under Creative Cloud, I will pay nearly £600 every year. Unless Adobe decides to increase the price, of course.

5) Adobe are holding us all to ransom. It's not unheard of for freelancers to encounter the occasional cashflow crisis — it's a line of work where the periods of most work very rarely coincide with the periods of abundant cash. Except, with Creative Cloud, if we don't make the monthly payments then software on which rely for our livelihood will simply stop working.

I understand that for many people, the upfront costs of the Creative Suite were prohibitive and that the subscription model works better for them, regardless of the fact that the overall cost is far higher. Fine. Let them have their sub — I have no issue with that.

However, it doesn't work for me: it costs me more money and takes control of my finances away. I want to be able to buy my software in perpetuity at a time of my choosing. I'm perfectly happy for both options to exist but, at present, Adobe are only offering the subscription model. I will, therefore, run my copy of CS6 until such time as it will no longer work and, at that time, I will find alternative ways of delivering my work.

Creative Cloud is one long, almighty 'Screw you' from Adobe to their customer base. I have no hesitation in returning the sentiment.

Someone called Sam Charrington posted the following on Adobe's Creative Cloud Facebook page, in response to a call from them for people's favourite jokes:

A man goes into a pub and asks the landlord for a pint of bitter.

"Sorry," says the landlord, "we don't sell beer anymore, we rent it instead."

"But that's madness," says the man.

"It's called innovation," says the landlord.

"Oh well," says the man, "I'll rent a pint of bitter please."

"You can't just rent the bitter," says the landlord, "you have to rent the whisky, the rum, the lager, the gin, the vodka, the crisps and the pork scratchings - the whole lot."

"But I don't need all that, and I can't afford it," says the man.

"I don't care," says the landlord.

"But I've been coming here for years," says the man.

"Talk to the hand..." says the landlord.

Which, sadly, is a pretty accurate summary of the situation.