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Technical Excellence
Designing Skins for the Ages

There are a lot of skins out there. Some of them are buggy, incomplete, or just plain bad. Obviously people don't deliberately set out to create bad skins, nor does a bad skin generally indicate laziness on the part of the skinner - just a lack of understanding of ways to make it better. This section should give you a few pointers as to how.

Is your skin complete? Does it cover all possible sections? Be comprehensive, and set everything you can - you should not rely on default settings to remain constant over time. It pays to keep up-to-date with the latest news for your chosen skinning software - often there are new versions available that provide new features, or improvements on old ones. If you can be the first to implement them, guess what - you have the most complete skin around! You may even get your skin featured by the software programmers, which is an excellent way of getting recognition (as well as free software in some cases).

From l-courni: "Gotta make it perfect. I mean, not a pixel out of your concept, coherent . . . and use the skinning engine of the software to its limits."

Even better, find innovative ways to get around limits. One good example is Morphh's Toxic, which combined titlebar animation and transparent buttons to give the appearance of animated buttons, a feature that would not be added for several years.

Does the skin show all the right buttons when it should, and only when it should? For example, some windows have no maximise button - your skin should do the same for these windows, so that users are not confused by nonfunctional buttons. Is there any situation in which the skin "looks wrong"? Is any animation jerky? If so, it may be necessary to rework graphics or add frames to animations in order to cover the cracks. This is the part of skinning that can take the most time - tweaking images, margins, button positions and colours - but it's important. Great skins tend to be 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration, and only about 50% of that is in the graphics - attention to detail is one common factor in all great skinners.

Animation made by overlaying two imagesQuick Hint: If you have a simple static animation, one fast way to add frames is to double the size of the image, make a copy of each frame next to itself and then copy the next frame onto it at 50% opacity, mixing the two. This can be repeated as necessary. The animation to the right was made from just two images and this technique.

Is your skin reasonably resolution-independent? If you have a large monitor - and a lot of skinners do, but not so many users - it's easy to forget that skin elements may be off the screen at lower resolutions, especially for desktop skins and themes like DesktopX. If you know this will be a problem, put a note in your skin description - or better yet, provide alternatives for low-resolution users. Conversely, if you're running at 800x600 you need to remember that your small fonts may be less readable at higher resolutions, and the detail of your images may be lost.

From digital_trucker: "It's a simple fact that most people use either 800x600 or 1024x768. If people would learn how to make themes resolution-independent, life would be nicer."

Could your skin use less memory, disk space or CPU cycles? Remember, people have to download your work and they're not going to want to wait for it to arrive or load, nor will they be pleased if it makes their computer run as slow as treacle. Animations are particularly likely to cause problems, but so may transparency, alpha blending or irregularly shaped objects - computers prefer to think in rectangles. Sounds can also end up taking a big chunk of space - use the Sound Recorder accessory to trim silence from the beginning and end of your WAV files, and consider converting them to mono and/or 22kHz format.

Are you doing something one way when there's a better way available? For example, have you got alpha-blended or transparent skin elements that could be pre-blended in your graphics package, thus avoiding expensive operations when the skin is in use? Just as multiplications are a lot easier when you have a times table, doing the work beforehand can vastly increase your skin's performance. Similarly, if an image looks the same whether it is displayed tiled or stretched, it's usually faster to tile it.

Another way to save some space is to convert your images to a lower bit-depth, though be sure to check that image quality is not compromised after the conversion. Going from 24-bit to 256 colours can cut on-disk size by two-thirds, and it'll be smaller when compressed as well. Small images (< 1kb) are an exception to this rule, since the 256 colour index will take up more size than the space saved.

Quick Hint: If you do decrease colour depth, use "Adaptive" or "Octree" options in preference to "Standard", "Web-safe" or "Median". The former methods are more likely to select appropriate colours for your image.

You may be tempted to submit your first skin as soon as you think it's ready - I know I was! I recommend testing your skin in general use for at least a few days after you finish it - you'll usually find some rough edges (metaphorical or otherwise) that need smoothing off. Even better, give it to a friend and ask them to review it for you, or post a link on a newsgroup or skinning forum. A new pair of eyes will often spot gaps in your work better than your own. After that you can publish with confidence.

Hippy of comments: "It's best to try and have your skin tested on a few different versions of Windows, so you know that everything's covered."

Finally, if you are skinning with a program that improves over time, don't forget to update your skins with the latest features when they become available. It takes a lot less effort than making a whole new skin, and your users will be very pleased to hear that their favourite skin got a facelift! If you're looking to build up a good reputation in the skinning community, supply your users with frequent updates - just make sure you don't break your skin, requiring your users to download another update!

Kris Kwilas of Stardock notes: "Skinners should solicit feedback, be available via email or forums - don't just toss it into the wild to fend for itself."
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This site is copyright 2003 Laurence "GreenReaper" Parry. Got comments? Mail me.