Naked Relaunch, Part I

Warning: if you’re reading this in the feed, it won’t make much sense. You might want to have a look at the site.

Gah! What happened?! Suddenly my blog looks like crap! Right? Don’t panic. Your browser is not broken. I didn’t delete my stylesheet either. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and this is indeed a relaunch — an experimental one. I’ve reduced the blog down to (almost) pure content, stripped everything except the most basic structure out of my CSS, and removed all the unnecessary crap like tags, categories, etc. Over the next few weeks (maybe months), I’ll take on different areas of the site and first clear up their structure, and once everything is working correctly and is well-organised, I may add some decoration.

What brought this on are three things that have been spinning around in my head for a while: Ryan Singer’s workshop at the Future of Web Design conference in New York last November, the ongoing influence over the last year of Oliver Reichenstein and his consistently intelligent blog entries in the iA Notebook, and my own thoughts on the role of design and content in the web.

Ryan’s Concept

For those who don’t know, Ryan Singer is a designer at 37signals, a company focussed on agile development of easy to use web apps. Ryan unfortunately doesn’t blog (I told him he should, since we need more blogs by smart designers) but he’s got a tumblelog running. Ryan’s FOWD presentation was great, and workshop was the high point of the entire conference for me. His answer to the question “how do you guys do concepts at 37signals?” was the high point of the workshop.

Before giving you his answer, I should say that, in my experience a concept is a stack of text and sketches which takes days to create, simulates something we haven’t done yet, is used primarily to give the client and our team the feeling that we all know what to do and expect, and can be thrown away after the project’s finished, if not earlier. So, back to the question. Ryan said, “ok, let’s say we want to make a blog. What’s the essential element of a blog, and what’s it made up of?” Well, text, obviously. And there are things like headlines, dates, links, etc. As people in the audience gave him these answers, he opened a text editor in the terminal, and started writing markup. We all scratched our heads a little. After ten to fifteen minutes, he had the markup finished, opened it in a browser, and said, “that’s our concept”.

Oliver’s Text

Complex discussions about simplicity are a waste of time. Oliver’s simple articles about complex subjects are a pleasure. Ever since reading his call for The 100% Easy-2-Read Standard, I’ve had to think at least twice about using 11 px Verdana, which I loved to do all too recently. He explains in no uncertain terms why text should be big, why whitespace is essential, and not just a matter of taste, and why graphic text is a pain in the ass. A straightforward quote, which you’d think wouldn’t need to be said, but definitely does:

Crowded websites don’t look good: they look nasty. Filling pages with stuff has never helped usability. It’s laziness that makes you throw all kinds of information at us. We want you to think and preselect what is important. We don’t want to do your work.

And another:

We want to be able to search text, copy text, save text, play with the cursor and mark text while we read. Text in images looks pretty, but pretty is not what the web is about. It’s about communication and information, and information needs to be readable and usable and scalable and citable and sendable.

Go read through the wealth of tasty articles at his iA Notebook, and see if it doesn’t change how you think about web design and business.

My Thoughts

A poster, hanging on a wall with twenty others, can only attract a viewer from a distance with design. A user who’s standing at a distance from your web site, i.e. Google, can’t see your design at all, only your content. For most people design means “how it looks”, or aesthetics (see this excellent post on Mark Boulton’s blog). But if your content rocks, and your design sucks, does it matter? And if it’s the other way around, who cares about your site?

I’m coming more and more to the opinion that (good) web design is 60% thinking, 30% structure and 10% aesthetics. I’ve thought enough about this relaunch, and the next step will be to establish a clean, navigable and readable structure. After that’s done, we’ll see about a little decoration.

The web is never finished. Regardless, we still spend lots of time and energy polishing and perfecting something hidden — which we can change every day at almost no cost — before whipping the curtain back with a fanfare as if it were a building or a car or a ship. I thought it’d be interesting for a change to use the medium itself to build a piece of the medium (instead of simulating it in Photoshop first) and to make the path of evolution a visible one. I’d be very interested in your thoughts and reactions to all of this. Hell, who knows, maybe I’m crazy.