I think I’ve got the last plug-in conflict debugged, all of the pieces in place, and most of the site content rewritten. Which means that the heavy lifting is done and this phase of the blog redesign project is finally winding down.
I started this back in October when I finally decided of looking at the site and going “one of these days, I have to do this right”. My history with this web site has been to tweak it over time until it gets to the point where it’s driving me crazy, then toss in a new theme and whack at it until the worst design problems go away, and then say to myself “one of these days, I have to do this right” and move on to some other project.
Well, this is “one of these days”, or at least I hope so.
This turned into an extremely complex project, because it wasn’t just about changing the fonts or putting in a new logo — for the first time since I left Apple. I didn’t expect it to take six months, to be honest, but I realized I had to commit to however long it took, or I’d just end up with another half-assed collection of stuff I wasn’t happy with.
I had to sit myself down and decide what I wanted this site to be about, how I wanted to represent that — and myself — and what the intent of the site should be. Those questions were actually rather difficult to answer, not in the least because I’ve been ducking them since I left Apple. But it was time to either give it up or get serious about it. Honestly, I considered both options. Get serious won.
I spent a lot of time looking at web sites and researching what current design trends were being talked about. I put in a lot of thought what made me like certain sites and what made me dislike others — which is where Things I Hate About Your Web Site came from. I then vowed not to do things on my site that I hated on other sites, and I’ve tried to stick to that.
When I boiled down what I liked about other sites, certain things kept showing up: Clear focus; Clean design; White Space; Simple navigation. Simplified design.
When I looked at my old site? I saw lots of clutter. lots of widgets and trinkets and trivia. It felt grey, there were too many menus and navigation alternatives; no clear direction on where to look for things and what to find on the site. The supporting documentation materials spread out across too many pages, were too long, too rambling and worked too hard at not having an opinion. And ultimately, the site wasn’t about anything — it was just a collection of stuff I put on it. No focus, no direction, no purpose.
Which, in retrospect, pretty much sums up things when I left Apple. And which very definitely isn’t representative of life today.
So, with my marching orders, time to dig in and start fixing.
I started with the logo. Done properly, it defines the essence of whatever the logo represents — in this case, myself, and the site (as my online virtual me). Laurie and talked about the logo a fair amount and she did the design, handing off the heron in outline holding the camera. It should not be difficult to come to this site and realize that a photographer lives here, and that there’s a strong emphasis on wildlife of some sort — whether or not you recognize that as a egret (or even as a bird). I reinforced that by making sure the front page put photography front and center and that the imagery you see on the front page of the site is a strong mix of both landscape and wildlife images with a good emphasis on birds — but not exclusively so.
I tried a number of treatments of the logo — it started out larger with an image kicked into the interior, tried textures and colors and color spots and various treatments. What I realized was that it was really easy to make the logo too busy and distracting, and it’s job was to identify the site on the page, not be the focal point. So I shrunk it down and went to the silhouette in a single color. It’s there, but it really shouldn’t be drawing your eye away from the content to the logo by being bright or busy.
Branding. Almost a dirty word now, especially when talking about personal sites instead of corporate ones — but in reality, it’s an important set of decisions that drive a lot of other decisions. Do it badly, and you drive them off a cliff. Is the site about me? Is it about my content? or what. My decision?
The site is really about two things: my photography and my writing. They come together in my writing about my photography, but the writing isn’t JUST about photography. The site needed to be able to handle both. So the branding, such as it is, is me. I used my name, not “Chuq’s nature photography” or “up way too early in the morning but oh my god the sunrise photography” as some not-personal entity.
Stories Told Here
I’ve talked a bit about the new tagline “Stories Told Here” already. I will likely talk about it in more detail down the road as plans come together. But in many ways, it’s my stake in the ground. It’s a reminder that the site isn’t about an image, but about helping people become interested and involved with that is represented within that image. It’s not about a pretty photograph, but the story that is told by that image and about the place that image describes. And down the road, I’m looking to do a lot more than ‘just’ still photography as I work to get a handle on adding in audio and video and telling a larger story through words and image and sound and movement and whatever else helps me help you understand what it was like to be there. Some of that philosophy got written about in my Beyond ‘Vacation Snaps’ piece recently, and that will help explain the direction I hope to travel, with this site as base camp.
The menu on the front page is different than the menus on the rest of the site. (why? soon. soon…). That decision created some interesting challenges because the theme I use, Photocrati, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of customization too easily. I ended up going in and creating a custom page type by hacking a few files in the them, one that fully supports the infrastructure of the theme but none of the content. That allowed me a blank canvas, but one that could use all of the support tools of WordPress and the theme, including the site-wide CSS so that the front page would fit in with whatever design choices went into the site (like background color for pages) without requiring the front page to be hard coded for everything. It’s actually a neat hack and one I hope Photocrati adopts in a future release, and yes, I’ll go into detail on it as I get deeper into this new site.
The menus are single level and simple by design. The visitor to the front page is likely brand new to the site. Too many choices intimidates and confuses and leads to site abandonment. I wanted to tear down the front page navigation to the bare essentials, and I think this is it: pictures, blog, writing, me, contacting me, and image licensing. Don’t confuse a new person with a zillion options, keep it simple and help them find what they came here for.
On the right side of the menu are contact points. Making it easy for someone to connect to you is increasingly crucial — you want them to be able to find you where it’s convenient for them. But not, as I noted in the article on why I hate your web site, beating them over the head and holding them hostage until they agree to stay connected. My philosophy is to make them want to come back with good content and a friendly site, and then make it easy for them to via easy to find and use contact points. Again, though, not too many — the secondary contact points are available, but off on the Contact page. Six months ago maybe the “Subscribe via RSS” would be enough, but with the pending death of Google Reader, I won’t assume that people who used to use that service will just move to another RSS reader — so I think it’s important they know how to create that contact point on the service THEY plan on using. Therefore, your twitter, your Facebook, your G+ all need to be on page one and above the fold. Don’t hide. That’s as bad as holding them hostage until they sign up.
This is another reason I wanted the front page menus to be unique to the site; there’s zero reason this much screen space needs to be taken up on every page on the site. That’d be a waste and it’d add to site clutter. But here?
And the pictures. Front and center, literally. What you should see. On the old site, I tried to make the front page serve two masters, the images and the blog/writing, and it failed at both. So the front page now is all about images. The front page of the blog is where the writing serves as lord and master (and we’ll talk more about that soon). Each is dominant in its domain, and so we remove that conflict and the clutter it created.
And deciding how to present the images is a story in itself, but not today. But I spent a long time trying to decide how I wanted this to look. It’s fairly unusual in that I’m not using a carousel/slider and instead it’s a gridded display. That’s actually the point, not being like everyone else, but only if it works. I think it does. Being about version 15 of the new!improved! home page, I have to say I really like it. (And yes, if you select an image, it’ll bring up a slideshow).
By the way, this site, for all my testing, works great on an iPad or other tablet. And should look pretty good on an iPhone or mobile device. That’s increasingly crucial if you want people to see your stuff. And all it takes is some care and thoughtful adoption of the right tools. The last version of the site? It, um, didn’t really take mobile devices into consideration, even though I’d recently spent three years of my life trying to build them. It was on the list, as soon as I had the time… Sound familiar?
The old site footer was a disaster. Used up huge amounts of space on the screen, and had way too many things because it was trying to serve many masters with a single layout. I ended up removing everything but the copyright notice, which goes on every page of the site. Everything else found homes elsewhere where it was appropriate — or went away.
So the new site is finally settling in. I still have work to do on some pieces, but the “figure out what needs to be done” phase is done, and the “fix all of the back end tools and infrastructure” is as well (I think. I hope). And now I’m winding down on the “fix all of the stuff that’s already there” phase, which means I can get back to what I want to do, which is create new images and write new words, rather than fix the old broken words and maintain the technology that spits them out onto your screen when you ask for them.
Or at least, that’s the plan…
And if I’ve done this right, I won’t feel like I have to do major surgery again for a couple of years. At least. Time (and your feedback) will tell. I am curious what you think, what you like, what you think I got right — and what you hate and think I got wrong.
Hoping that’s a short list, actually…