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ActionScript for Designers, Part One

We have to tear down before we rebuild By Kevin Schmitt

If you're a Flash designer, there are probably a million reasons why you might be reluctant to go down the ActionScript road. I know, because I probably went through each of those reasons myself before I finally bit the bullet. But learning at least a little about ActionScript can really help you take your design work to the next level, so over the coming weeks I'll be showing you a few tricks that should help make the leap into ActionScripting a little less jarring. First, though, I'm going to have to address the skeptics.

Time for some history

For what may initially seem like selfish reasons, I'm writing this series for myself. Actually, I'm writing this for the me of about four years ago, in the foolish hopes of somehow transporting this information back in time so that I might have gotten off my lazy butt a little sooner. You see, back then I thought everything was just hunky-dory with what I was learning about the design side of Flash coupled with my pathetic little forays into interaction (pretty much the stop(); and play(); actions attached to frames and buttons via Flash's Normal Mode ActionScript panel). Woo-freaking-hoo, right?

While I had gotten to know a fair amount of Lingo during my heavier Director-using days, ActionScript seemed like a whole 'nother animal. First of all, ActionScript looked like JavaScript, and either one of which might as well have been Medieval Klingon to me (we're still talking the me of Y2K here). Second of all, Flash's Movie Clip paradigm introduced a huge and seemingly tangled web of roots, parents, and overall path silliness which didn't make a whole lot of sense to someone who hadn't cared about anything other than symbols and tweening up to that point (and frames on a stage in Director before that). So I came up with a whole host of excuses as to why I wasn't going to "go there" as far as ActionScript was concerned, all of which boiled down to some permutation of "I'm getting away with not knowing it right now, so that's good enough for me." Now, a favorite saying of mine (which I'm going to paraphrase) is that someone endures countless hardships to avoid a hard day's work, and since that saying certainly applies to me, it's only fitting that it took one such hardship to finally put me and "real" ActionScript together at last. Simply stated, I learned more about ActionScript to save my sanity. Here's the story:

A client of mine loved to drive me crazy. They didn't do it intentionally (they, like the vast majority of the clients I've had in both corporate and freelance life, were lovely people and ultimately very good to work for), but they could never seem to make up their collective minds about anything. A particular favorite was to pronounce a project "complete" and then decide, as the project was being subsequently wrapped up, that they were going to add three more sections or whatever else they would come up with to otherwise gum up the works. So, during the course of one particular CD ROM project, I made the conscious decision in the planning phase to insulate myself as much as possible from the insanity I just knew was going to bog down the tail end of the project. I had been using Flash for a while, even favoring it over Director on CD projects, so instead of "hard coding" section names, body text, images, and other very-likely-to-change items into the Flash movie, I was going to move as much as possible outside the Flash environment so when the inevitable shakeup occurred, I could swap out a few images in a directory and change a single text document and call it a day. Plus, it also gave the clients themselves the option to update things if they wanted, which is a huge selling point for a project even if they never end up doing so.

At any rate, it was over the course of that particular project that I really laid the groundwork for all kinds of cool ActionScript goodness that has followed since. Starting with the separation of design and content, which was the big thing in the aforementioned project, I've really learned to embrace the scripting of things that I would have otherwise "baked" directly into the Flash movie itself. This has opened up a whole new world for my Flash designs ? one of true dynamic and interactive animation that can really change what the art of the possible is for those who traditionally consider themselves Flash designers. So, when I mentioned before that I'm writing this series for self-serving motives (that whole time travel thing), that's only partially true. I've talked to a lot of Flash folk in the last few years who, for whatever reason, have also shied away from embracing the geekier side of Flash just as I did, so hopefully we'll be able to overcome some of that reluctance together over the course of this series.

Now, I do have one disclaimer to ram through before I go any further. I'm going to write in it caps so as not to be misunderstood: I AM NOT A PROGRAMMER! It's quite likely that there are several techniques I'm going to go over that will be downright laughable to real programmers. I actually expect ridicule on that front, and invite folks better versed than me in the ways of scripting to tell me where I have erred and to set me straight. Anything to do things even faster or easier in the future is fine by me. But that's not the point. The point is that you don't have to be a programmer to have ActionScript help you out tremendously in your Flash designs, and even if you're not doing things 100% to accepted programming conventions and/or standards it ultimately doesn't matter as far as I'm concerned. After all, a lot of times what we're doing is just making some fancy eye candy, not curing cancer. Perspective is, after all, important in work as well a life. And, with that said, on to our last bit of convincing for today.

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Related Keywords:Flash, Flash MX, Flash MX 2004, ActionScript

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