One of my major disputes with the “gospel” of web design is the idea that content should be designed so that it can easily flow into any container. As a photographer, I became acutely aware of how the shape of the photograph effected perception. Square pictures have a different feel than 4×5 pictures, or the long skinny panoramic pictures. Square pictures can be more iconic. This quality also exists in 8×10 pictures, but there is a more dynamic feel to the rectangular proportion. The 1:1.5 aspect of 35mm creates an all new dynamism; the active nature of the camera is matched by a more eye-bending sort of diagonal tension which just isn’t seen in the other formats. At the extreme, long thin panoramas show an expanse that you just cannot take in at a glance. You have to work hard to get any sort of “integrated” feeling from long skinny pictures.
As a literature student who focused primarily on poetry, I couldn’t help but connect the strictures of form with the end result. Most forms have a history, which contributes an overtone to the words themselves. Byron reads differently when he writes in Spenserian stanzas compared to octava rima. The punch line is different, and somehow funnier in octava rima’s Henny Youngmanesqe form. The container, whether it is a stanza, a black frame line, or the edge of a computer monitor has a profound effect on the way we construct meaning from a group of signifiers.
That’s why I’ve been obsessed with control over the context of my content. That’s why I don’t just import pieces I’ve composed from previous blogs into one giant omnibus blog. The design effects the content. Now, I’m faced with trying to reconstruct the significant parts of the design of this Public Address 2.0 rather than just importing it here. I made some big changes between my initial Greymatter blog and the Movable Type one that followed. I talked about it a little then, but since that content is now in a holding pattern while I try to reconstruct that blog, I’ll provide a short recap.
My first blog was an ocean of blue. It will be back as soon as I configure Greymatter to run here—not a big problem. What I wanted to get away from in the 2.0 design was the contiguous nature of the postings. One post pretty much flowed into the next, and it was fun to sort of riff on ideas for weeks on end. The design of the blog matched the thought process going on to create the entries. It was stream of consciousness, associative, and incredibly fun. But in the end, I was a bit unsatisfied with the lack of closure for many of the ideas I explored there.
The 2.0 version was far more traditional. I provided for a distinct break in between the posts so that they had the appearance of note cards or full sheets of paper. It was a more essay oriented blog, where I did try to make each post more substantial and complete and self contained. This matched up well with my rising “google presence” because a random surfer was much less likely to be confused by what they found.
The nagging problem with both of those blogs was screen size—if you surfed in on a small monitor, you were forced to scroll a lot. Although I did not fix the column size of the main text area, my usage of large images meant that it just plain didn’t fit. And the first thing you saw in both of those blogs in the upper right hand corner was the navigational bar. On a small monitor, it occupied around 1/6th of the screen with the content scrolling off into the sunset. I thought this was a necessary compromise, because the most important thing for any web page is navigation, right?
Not necessarily. I started thinking about that when I designed this blog. For a page that draws hits mostly from search engines, identifying the site and providing important links for new visitors is perhaps the primary concern. However, for a blog page that a small group of readers looks at with greater frequency it seems very redundant to offer “the same old thing” as the first thing you see. I was thinking that the newest content should be the first thing you see. So I moved the sidebar to the right (on the assumption that most of my readers are Westerners).
Using images on a blog is always a problem because of screen size considerations. I confess, I hate thumbnails and almost never click through. So aiming at a middle ground resolution (1024×768) I chose a basic maximum width for images in all my blogs. But when a lower resolution visitor surfed in, I knew that they would have to do a lot of scrolling. It was most annoying to discover that a few people (locally) with larger monitors usually surfed at 800×600 anyway, thus destroying my attempts at producing visually integrated pages. And of course, higher resolution settings caused lines of text that went on for days, and wrapped unpredictably around images. For the previous two blogs, I had sort of surrendered to a “this page looks best when viewed on my monitor” approach.
I decided to do something different here. I have fixed the “content” pane at 775 pixels wide. This means that on a lower resolution monitor, the sidebar disappears unless you scroll. But the basic content stays the same, even at higher resolutions—no more endless lines of text. I thought it was the best compromise. And regular visitors, who I feel are more important than search engine strays, don’t really need the navigation that often anyway. I think it’s much better than surfing into a big picture that you have to scroll to see first thing.
I decided to use a more subtle divider between posts—the problem with the “paged content” look of the 2.0 design was that I really couldn’t write short posts (not that I do all that often) without them looking wonky. That problem wasn’t a major one, but I wanted to return a little bit to the stream of consciousness feel of my first blog.
Not that I have much consciousness these days—I just have a long list of things to do. But at least I have a new container, with all its attendant problems of learning how to best exploit it.