The Site Update is complete!

by | May 11, 2019

I’ve been kind of missing the last few weeks here, but for a really good reason. At the start of the year I decided it was time to give my online sites an overhaul with a new look. That all started with me moving a lot of my images to Flickr, and then re-organizing the Smugmug site with a new look around collection of images around a specific subject.

I then turned to this beast and gave it a new look as well. That ended up taking me about a month longer than expected because once I dug into it I found things I needed to do I hadn’t thought of, and a couple of bits simply needed more work than I thought going in.

Why?

A few things drove this update, other than the fact that it’s been 2 and a half years since my last refresh and I get bored with the design after a while.

First, I really felt like my online presence was not doing my photography any favors. I really wanted to bring the imagery forward, give it a much higher profile, make it look at lot better — really show it off. I wanted the images to be bigger and bolder. I really wanted the images to make an impact, and the old design, honestly, tended to downplay and hide them.

Second, my online environment had gotten too complicated and was trying to do too many things with no focus. The front page of this main site had turned into an ugly, unusable collection of random things all screaming LOOK HERE without any real purpose.

And third, my goals for what I want to do online keep evolving as I do, and the old site simply wasn’t aligned with what I wanted to show off any more.

What??

When I start a project I like to sit down and think through what needs to be done and what I’m trying to accomplish. That usually leads to some design ideas that give me ideas of how to accomplish it.

For this redesign there were two primary things I wanted to fix:

  • I wasn’t happy with how my images were displayed, and I didn’t think my photography looked good, and I wanted it to have a higher profile on the site.
  • Over time, I felt the site had come to feel cluttered and busy, navigation was complicated and it wasn’t easy to find some of the things I wanted to make a priority. Adding yet another menu option made things worse, not better, so I had to rethink it.

Fixing the image issue was, at least in theory, easy. That meant nuking the sidebar, but there was content in the sidebar that mattered and I needed to find other ways to display that. I also felt the color scheme tended to compete with the images for attention.

Simplicity seems like a simple thing to fix, but… the devil is in the details.

If you ever sit down with me over a beer to talk website design, at some point I will suggest that if you have more than five or six top level menu items on your site, and more them 3-4 is the drop down menu, that you’re doing it wrong and you’re pushing too many things at a reader who doesn’t want to think that hard about what to click on. I’ll also note if you use more than two levels of menus you’re almost definitely an idiot.

I hadn’t hit the point of doing that last mistake, but one of my menus — the About Chuq menu, god help me, was up to seven, mostly because I couldn’t figure out a better way to do it (which, in retrospect, indicated my about page was a structural disaster, which it was).

My photography area was another disaster. I had, for the best of intentions, built it out as a split area, one set of pages around my blog/writing, the other around images. It seemed a good idea at the time. In practice? If the person who designed and maintains it can’t remember which page something belongs on, it’s broken.

And the front page had turned into a cluttered mess with way too many things of little value, and incredibly bad organization.

So in other words, just a couple of cosmetic tweaks and I’d be fine…

How

In practice, it was mostly cosmetic changes. I didn’t feel the need to change WordPress themes, but to rethink the design within the existing structure. It helped that when I did the redesign a couple of years ago I put a lot of work into fixing structure issues hoping it would make future updates easier, and it turns out I was right.

I also decided — and I really, really suggest that you should never do it this way — not to build out a test system and do all the work there, but instead chose to work on the live system a piece at a time, building in new bits and pieces along the way. I started with the blog bits and I used a new blog piece — the inevitable camera bag post I’ve been trying to get written for months — as the testing bed.

That kind of post is long, complex, tends to have lots of links and images and often end up looking like huge lists of links to Amazon (buy stuff! buy stuff!) as opposed to guides to help you know what might be worth owning. I wanted to avoid that, and that forced me to rethink how I handled my Amazon Affiliate content. The end result was what I call my Amazon Store, where I can show off lots of links to things with a lot of detail, where it’s easy to find but also allowing me to focus posts like the camera gear piece more on editorial and opinion without cluttering it up with lots of links.

I like the result, and that camera bag piece shows off a lot of the ideas I wanted to bring in to this site in terms of organization and display pretty well. it’s still evolving in tiny ways, as I expect it will for a while, but I’m really happy with the end result.

I ended up simplifying the blog landing pages, going to smaller images and more concise summaries in a grid format. The old design, with larger images and more text, I think was trying to both be the Table of Contents and the place to read the article and did neither well.

Structurally I redid the blog area massively. There’s still the main blog where all of the things I write for the site go, but I created a couple of “mini blog” areas, one for photography, one for a photoblog, and one for my birding stuff. This was the result of tearing apart the old photography area and cleaning it up, and it means there are RSS feeds available for those people who might only be interested in one specific set of content have that option now.

Other than that, I massively simplified how many topics I was tagging onto articles, because I found in practice (a) nobody every looked at stuff by topic, and (b) because of that, I stopped tagging reliably. So I just got rid of all of this and simplified my life and the site.

So you can now read the entire blog, or just the photography bits, or the birding bits, as you prefer. Those made convenient landing points for a few key links, but otherwise I’ve tried to not clutter things up. The photoblog will be a fourth landing point, separate from the main photo area, but I have some work to do before I am posting to it regularly, and I’ll talk about it later.

I ended up rewriting the about area completely. It was too long, too cluttered and didn’t really do anything well. While doing it, I did move some of those menu items over to the about page because honestly, it’s stuff that exists mostly to make sure it’s in the search engines, not because humans go looking for it directly, and so it doesn’t need to be high profile in the menus. I’d never built them appropriate homes, and now I have.

The 6FPS stuff didn’t change, but I may re-think it down the road. Right now I still like it. The bits and pieces from my short-lived podcast disappeared, although the episodes are still there if anyone cares.

Finally, the new front page: I went really simple, with a nice big slider for recent posts, an area showing off my smugmug portfolio topics set up in a way I can rearrange or replace one easily, and I built out some rotating sliders to replace what used to be links of things in the sidebars and footer. The footer is much simplified and cleaner as well. I limited myself to five menu items and none of them has more than three items in the submenu.

I hope this simplified navigation and look makes it a lot clearer what the site is about, and easier to find what’s on it. We’ll see.

The new look

Once all of the bits of guts were done and installed, I had to fix the overall look. Out with the color scheme, out with the big green underlines, out with the old fonts. Like many photography-oriented sites I went with neutral colors and a darkish theme to not have the site compete with the imagery. I updated the fonts — we now use Libre Franklin for body text and Lato for the headlines, and I quite like the result.

And I tried to open it up, use fewer design widgets and trinkets, more open space (I almost said white space, but much of it is darkish). For what it’s worth, if you look you’ll see I’m not using a pure black or pure white, since I find that can be start and tiring on the eye. Mine are #333333 and #eeeeee, which gives me good contrast between the two, but I find are a lot easier to look at for periods of time than the pure colors.

The core under neat is still WordPress, using the Elegant Themes Extra theme. Along the way we upgraded the version of PHP to 7.2 which has sped up rendering times significantly, which makes me happy, too.

And now? I can stop spending hours on the site, and go back to why this site exists: allowing me to write, take and display pictures, and generally try to share interesting stuff with you for you to enjoy. But hopefully, it’ll be easier to read, easier to find, and god, the images are going to look a lot better now…