Computer Basics

    All too frequently, computer and design classes teach you things you can do with a computer, but no one ever teaches you how to use a computer, or how it works, or especially, what to do when things go wrong — it's like teaching someone to read a map and assuming that they can therefore drive a car. There's a great deal that one ought to know about using something as complex as a computer before trying to design for the same. Following are some basic tips and good practices that everyone should be familiar with. You don't have to follow any of these rules, but you'll almost certainly regret it someday if you don't. Take it from one who knows....

    Some of the following topics are complex, and what's discussed below is only a cursory introduction; many of these things require an entire book or class to fully explain. Nonetheless, if you plan on using a computer as part of your day to day activities (and it's almost impossible not to these days), you need to spend the time to understand these topics and how they work.

    Obviously, this is a short list, but I've found the things below are frequently overlooked by most computer users, and can save an enormous amount of time, and sometimes a lot of heartache.


    1. Save It!

      Whenever you use a computer to create something, save early and often. No matter what the file or document, I recommend saving every 10 minutes, no matter how unimportant the work may seem. Even if it's merely to establish good habits, use the Save command (Ctrl-S on Windows, Command-S on a Macintosh) over and over and over. Save Save Save. Why wait for the computer to eat a day's worth of irretrievable work or data to learn this lesson?


    2. Delete It!

      As soon as you begin to save files, you start the process of accumulation. No matter what storage media you're using, it will eventually fill up. Typically, you discover your floppy, zip or hard drive is full when trying to save something incredibly important; computers tend to behave badly when they run out of space (most computer crashes are related to a program running out of memory and/or disk space). It is as important to make certain to delete or archive old material as it is to save new work. Pay attention to how much room is left on your disk drive. Under windows, right-click the drive, and choose "properties" to find out how much space is left. On a Macintosh, highlight the disk, and hit Command-I.


    3. Back up your work!!

      If the work you're doing is remotely important to you, always have a back-up copy. There are two basic strategies to backing things up - on a regular basis (daily or weekly), create a duplicate copy of important files on a different disk or hard drive. Removable media (e.g. floppies and zip disks) fail frequently, and hard drives fail occasionally, but they all fail eventually. Always always always have a second copy of anything important on a different disk.

      It can also be invaluable on complex projects to save different versions of your work. Over days and weeks, the work you do can change dramatically; sometimes, you really want to use something you did previously but then erased. That's exactly when an older version can come in handy.


    4. Ooops.

      No matter how careful you are, you will eventually delete or lose something important. It is possible to restore deleted files. When a file is deleted, the computer doesn't usually erase the actual file - it simply marks that area of the disk drive as being available for use, and removes the entry for that file. It's like erasing a bookmark - even though you can no longer click on it to get to a particular web page, the page itself isn't necessarily gone.

      However, and this is very important, once a file entry is deleted, the computer will attempt to utilize that space if you save something else. DO NOT save anything else to the same disk or hard drive; instead, immediately attempt to recover the file. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you can get the file back. Probably the best tool to recover lost files is Norton Utilities, specifically the Unerase option. If you don't have Norton Utilities, ask your system administrator, or lab assistant, or someone you know who knows a lot about computers. There's no guarantee a deleted file can be recovered, but the sooner you act after a mishap, the more likely it is you'll save your work.

      Of course, if you paid attention to Rule Number 3, you won't be nearly so frantic.....


    5. organize your work - the basis of all design is organization - order from chaos as it were. If you and only you know where everything you've done is located, there is some organization — at least in your head. Personally, I think it's important to know what you save, how you name it and where you save it will make reasonable sense to someone else. First, because it's just good practice. Second, because it's reasonably likely that you'll forget your internal system or what you've done eventually, and if you've worked at sorting and organizing your work, it will probably make some sense to you. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, most people don't work in a vacuum, and it's therefore important that what you do make sense to the rest of your team, or your class, or your clients. Good design doesn't stop at what's on the page, but extends down to where you put your files and how you name them.


    6. hierarchical folders - everything on your computer can be logically organized into a tree, with the computer at the top, hard drives and removable media next, then folder, and finally files at the bottom (obviously, folders can have folders that have folders...). In order to organize your work, your files and folders, your software, etc., you have to understand how the file system itself is organized. I discuss this in the lecture on computers, but the key is to know how your system is organized, and how to move around within it. This is ultimately a visual and spacial skill, which is of course and important skill in the design process.


    7. moving files around - understanding your computer is only half the equation; your computer is presumably on the internet, which is an extended network, and may be on an office or home network (Local Area Network, or LAN) as well. Designing web sites ultimately entails moving files from one computer to another, at the very least from your computer to a web server. It's extremely important to have a basic grasp of how to move files, and equally important to understand how to send and receive files via email. There's more on moving files around in the FTP side bar, but your FTP client and your email client, as well as your Internet Service Provider (ISP) have an impact on how these things are done; I recommend checking the manual or help files (gasp) available with the software you personally use as to how to explicitly get these things done.


    8. ZIP your files - One of the biggest problems with sending and receiving files via email is understanding file compression. The most common utility used for compressing files to day is some version of "zip." Macintosh also uses software called StuffIt, which uses a different form of compression. Zip is the best format to use when you don't know what tools the receivers might have, because some kind of zip / unzip software is available for every computer on the market. On Windows, the most popular tool is WinZip, which you can find at if you don't already have it.


    9. assigning memory - computers and computer software need memory, or RAM (Random Access Memory) in order to work properly. As a general rule of thumb, the more memory, the faster the computer will run, and the less frequently it will crash. Most operating systems today require 64 Megs of RAM, and prefer 128M. Operating systems dynamically assign available memory to running programs. If you use Windows or *nix (some version or flavor of Unix such as Linux), this process is largely behind the scenes, and there is little if anything you need to do for day to day operations, other than insure the computer itself has enough memory. On a Macintosh, you can manually assign how much memory a program must have in order to run - for image-processing, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, or any video-processing software, you typically assign as much memory as you possibly can, as the programs will run considerably faster. To do this, highlight the application icon (not its shortcut), and hit Command-I. On newer versions of the OS, you may also have to choose "memory" from the resulting pull down menu. Regardless, you can increase the program's preferred and required memory allocations as much as you'd like, as long as the computer itself has enough memory.


    10. changing the screen resolution - this may seem so obvious as to be silly, but I've found a surprising number of people who didn't know that you could change the screen resolution, let alone have a reason to do so. Of course monitor sizes vary, but the amount of information your monitor can display varies greatly as well. One of the fundamental issues in designing for the computer universe is understanding that what you see on your particular monitor may not be the same as what someone else sees. The minimum display size for any monitor is 480 pixels high by 640 pixels wide. A typical laptop displays 600 x 800 pixels, and most 17" monitors are set to display 768 x 1024, more than 2.5x as much as the minimum. It's extremely important to look at any electronic design at a number of resolutions in order to know how effectively the design will translate from monitor to monitor.

      To change the resolution on a Macintosh, open the control strip, click on the monitor icon, and select the desired resolution. Under Windows, click on Start, then Settings, then Control Panel, then open the Display tool, and choose Screen Settings.


    11. keyboard commands - Virtually everything you can do with the mouse you can do with a set of keystrokes from the keyboard. Once you know a few keyboard commands, you'll find it's frequently a great deal faster to use your hands than it is to use the mouse. Whenever you pull down a menu, whether on a Macintosh or under Windows, you'll see the keyboard equivalent to the right of the menu choice. Most Window commands use the Control and Alt keys, combined with a letter or number. The Macintosh mostly makes use of the Command or Apple key (looks like a cloverleaf), or the Option key.

      Almost all software has a variety of specific functions that have keyboard equivalents; in addition, the operating system itself has a number of standard keystrokes. For instance, Copy is Ctrl-C or Command-C, Save is Ctrl-S or Command-S, Paste is Ctrl-V or Command-V, and delete is Ctrl-X or Command-X; these commands are standard across almost all software. To close a window, you can normally use Ctrl-W or Command-W. Although memorizing keystrokes may seem difficult, and the combinations arcane, learning them well will eventually save you a lot of time working on the computer. This is especially true because it always takes a certain amount of time to move a mouse around and select a particular option - you have to cover a certain "distance," and you can only do this so fast. Conversely, most people are able to use the keyboard ever faster with repetition.




all content © copyright 2003 neil verplank, unless otherwise stated