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Friday, July 19, 2002

An easy way to create thumbnail images

Even though a picture can be worth a thousand words, you don't always have that much room to fit one in — and visitors to your site won't always have the patience to wait around for a big picture to download. The alternative is to use thumbnails — small, low-resolution versions of the image that visitors can click on to see a bigger version if they want.

To create the thumbnail illustrations that you can see in this weblog, I've been using a neat shortcut that happens to be another service from Xara Online. It's called Smart Photo, and you access it from the same module store as the Xara database modules I've been writing about in previous posts. It's sold as part of the Web Graphics and Text Effects collection, which costs $11.95 a month, or $119 if you pay annually.

Smart Photo makes light work of inserting a thumbnail of any image:

  1. Create a new Smart Photo module
  2. Tell Xara to upload your original image (either from your hard disk or from a URL)
  3. Select the thumbnail option
  4. Make a note of the image width, and save and publish
  5. Copy the single line of HTML that Xara generates at that point
  6. Insert the HTML snippet in your web page.

To get the text to wrap round the image, I insert Xara's HTML snippet inside a table, like this, quoting the image width that I noted when creating the thumbnail:
<table align="right" width="83"><tr><td><script 
The Xara system takes care of everything else, including hosting the images, which is especially useful if your site is hosted somewhere like BlogSpot that doesn't accept images. Xara's image loading speeds are very fast and reliable, because their business depends on loading all of their customers' modules reliably and at high speed.

posted by Phil 6:53 AM (GMT) | comments | link

Thursday, July 18, 2002

Creating a weekly email newsletter and archive

By setting up a simple Xara Modules database and companion modules, it's been very easy to create a self-updating index and archive for the weekly bulletin that Loosely Coupled sends out as an email newsletter each week. Here's an overview of how it was done (I'll follow up in later postings with more detailed tips on individual elements):

  1. Before we started sending out the weekly mailing, I separated out the newsletter elements that would change each week from the elements that stay the same all the time. The elements that don't change are included in the standard template for the mailer, while the variable content is what needs to be stored in the database.
  2. I then created a database in Xara Modules to store the variable content. It includes fields for the date, the weekly lists of top news stories and weblog postings, the variable 'special topic', the announcement/advert slot, and so on
    — as shown in the screenshot (click thumbnail for larger version).
  3. It took just a few extra steps to set up the mailer for the first issue:
    1. I created a separate query module to fetch the variable contents for the current week.
    2. I put the non-changing template items into a mailer module, which I connected to the query module. I could then 'mail merge' the variable content from the database into the template for the finished mailer.
      The screenshot shows the mail merge codes in the mailer template (click thumbnail for larger version).
    3. Having pasted the variable content for the first bulletin into the database, I connected the query to a form module that 'triggers' the mailing. When the form is activated, the query runs and merges the content into the mailer, which sends off the email to our mailing list.

  4. Once we'd built up several weeks of newsletter archives, I added some extra modules that allow us to publish the database contents on the website:
    1. I copied the query module that I'd created for the mailer
    2. Then I created a reporter module and connected it to the new query
    3. I copied the template items from the mailer module into the reporter module, again using 'mail merge' fieldnames to bring in the variable content from the database.
      This is shown in the screenshot, where you can also see the various buttons and controls that allow you to edit individual rows and columns to alter the layout of the report (click thumbnail for larger version).
    4. I created a new form module to 'trigger' the query each time we want to update the report (eg after publishing a new mailing).
    5. Finally, I copied a single-line snippet of HTML and pasted it into a new page to publish the archive.

  5. I still wanted to add an index of recent newsletters to the main subscriber services page, because I didn't expect many casual visitors would click through to the full archive. That was easy enough, it just meant copying two modules and creating one new one:
    1. I copied the query module again
    2. I created a new reporter module, which I connected to the query. But since I intended this to be an index, I only merged a few of the fieldnames into the report, and I made the issue date into a link that visitors would be able to click on to view the full newsletter.
    3. I then made a copy of the original archive reporter module from step 4b, and connected it to the clickable link in my new module.
    4. The final step was to paste the HTML snippets for the new reporter modules into my website pages. You can see the finished result here.

I think the above demonstrates how easy it is to add extra functionality as you need it using Xara Online's connectable modules. What started out as a simple weekly mailer has now been extended with a useful archive feature that enhances the value and effectiveness of the website. All this without adding any extra maintenance overhead, because the archive is automatically generated from the newsletter database. As you can tell, I'm hooked!

posted by Phil 1:14 PM (GMT) | comments | link

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