Notes from on the ground

or: the what and why.

So after a redesign period of over a month I’m back. And what do I have to show for it? Well, you’re soaking in it. This is it. This is the new face of the Nonist. I can imagine what might be going through some of your minds on first sight- “No header image? No giant logo? No sidebar? No blogroll? No nav-bar? One column? What the hell?!” The design savvy among you might add “No image replacement? No ‘holy grail?’ No liquid or elastic? No yellow fade effects?” Some of you might even take this train of thought further down the line and arrive at- “It took a month to design this?”

Believe me when I tell you, I’m as surprised as anyone at where the redesign ultimately landed. If you’ll indulge me I’d like to talk a little about the process which got me here, explain the reasoning behind my decisions, and lay out a few of the changes…

As I’ve mentioned here previously, one day I logged onto the site and found that I was, for no particular reason, vividly aware of its shortcomings. In my estimation, as pleasant as the old Nonist was in some ways, it was also victimized by certain design affectations. The lowercase body-copy, as one example, which did not go un-derided.

What might have been less apparent were the limitations which the tight formatting actually placed on content. I was constantly tailoring posts to better fit the fascistic design. It was tiresome and I decided to start over, from scratch, with an eye toward both simplicity and a greater range of freedom in terms of actual content.

These goals might make it sound as though the design I finally arrived at came naturally. I assure you it did not. Which brings me to the reason everything took so long-

Excuses. Excuses.

Letterpress, linotype, woodtype, woodblock, 19th century broadsides complete with the attendant ornament, borders, brass rules, dashes, and embellishments. I’ve been inspired by these for a long while. I’ve got hundreds of examples cramming folders on my machine. I’ve got books piled on the floor. I can look at them endlessly. When It became apparent I’d be redesigning I figured it would be a great chance to delve into the aesthetic.

I created a broadside-inspired site but something wasn’t quite right. It was awkward somehow and I wasn’t happy with it. I began futzing, noodling and re-jiggering. It took me entirely too long to realize what the problem really was. And it was simple. My goals and my inspiration were at odds. What I’d come up with was, though true to my inspiration, more affected, more bloated, and more constraining than what came before. Needless to say I was annoyed.

Young people love what is interesting and odd, no matter how true or false it is. More mature minds love what is interesting and odd about truth. Fully mature intellects, finally, love truth, even when it appears plain and simple, boring to the ordinary person; for they have noticed that truth tends to reveal its highest wisdom in the guise of simplicity.-Friedrich Nietzsche.

I decided to make a long overdue purchase, Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, to try and help myself refocus. (If there was one thing I was sure that I wanted it was clear, legible, and stylistically correct text.) It’s a fascinating book which were I worth my salt as a designer I’d have read long ago. Almost immediately I came across a sentiment expressed by Bringhurst which was relevant to the problem at hand when he called the 19th century a “dark an inflationary age in typography and type design.

Just an offhand opinion, I know, but annoyed and behind schedule as I was it seemed like a omen too obvious to ignore. I decided to do the hardest thing I can think of, as a designer, and cast aside as many of my own crutches and old mainstays as possible. I decided to abandon any aspirations of “coolness” and focus instead on attempting elegance. I’m not certain whether I ultimately succeeded in this but I’ll explain my reasoning and let you be the judge.

The gut and its reasons.

The “more is more” philosophy seems to be the overriding reality in web design. 85% of the sites out there are so crammed full of columns, thumbnails, text links, rollovers, nav-bars, banner ads, and animations that the act of bringing your eyes down a page has become a form of strenuous exercise.

Many sites have little choice but to jam-pack every inch of screen real-estate. News portals and online merchants for example. They have a vast amount of data to dole out each day, the location of every bit of which needs to be immediately apparent. I don’t think the same can said for a huge swath of the internet and this approach by no means benefits all types of content.

It seems to me this over-use of the “more is more” aesthetic creates a sort of self-fullfilling prophesy in terms of internet reading habits and attention span. We are told time and again that people do not read things on the internet, they skim. We are told we, as content providers, have 3 seconds to clearly define our identity and purpose to a reader before they click away. Designers react accordingly and front load their entire site into a single browser window. So is it any wonder with all the clutter that people scan and scram? It’s like a defense reaction.

Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the / Most beautiful thing in the world, / A limited, limiting clarity / I have not and never did have any / Motive of poetry / But to achieve clarity. -George Oppen.

With this redesign I wanted to provide a counterpoint. As such the most important questions I had to ask myself were: How do people use the site? What would be the ideal user experience? And how do I present the content in a way which most encourages that ideal experience?

I’m not at all certain of the answer to that first question but I like to think people come here not only to see what’s on the other end of my links but to read what I’ve written and view what’s on display as well. That’s how I approach the content in any case. Further I have to assume that most visitors are interested in what is newly posted and generally ignore all the rest. It’s likely true for all blogs, new content is primary and archives, category trees, offshoots, ads, blogrolls, recent comments, shout boxes, etc, are secondary, at best.

In my mind the ideal experience would be entering a space where reading is easy on the eyes and the focus is undiluted, a space in which you could stretch out as it were, take off your coat, and stay a while. The ideal environment would then be one which emphasizes the content and puts aside the elements which readers would otherwise have to make an effort to ignore. Better that any effort is expended on what is secondary rather than on what is primary. The reading itself should be made effortless.

So what’s the best way to encourage this ideal experience which I’d like The Nonist to offer?


Obviously the main thrust of this redesign was simplicity but philosophically there was a shift as well which informed many of my choices. Against every piece of advice ever offered on web design I decided to stop tailoring the site toward the people who have never been here. Sounds silly but hear me out.

Many design choices are made with the people who don’t visit your site in mind. After all that’s exactly what all the “grab their attention in 3 seconds” stuff is really about. That’s also what design novelty and visual “gee-whiz” are about. Impressing potential first-time visitors. At some point it dawned on me that these are not the people I need to concern myself with. It’s my existing readership who deserve special attention. The non-functional bells and whistles of a site become invisible to return visitors after a while anyway, so why not do everyone a service and just remove it all?

People return to a site on the strength of its content and if a visitor can not take the time to discover what that content actually is without a multitude of visual cues and shiny things, then, well… In all likelihood they won’t have the patience to read my posts anyway. So if a visitor doesn’t see what they want to see in 3 seconds, and clicks away without bothering to read anything, then that’s o.k. with me. They’ve saved me some bandwidth. And hell, they’re not even reading this right now, which means there is no harm done in saying so.

So, beloved and patient readership, let’s consider the old site and run down the changes- 

Looking at the old Nonist now I must say it’s awfully busy. This is in part because of the side bar. As you scroll down the page to read a post you must make an effort ignore the entire left side of the screen. As I said earlier everything contained in that sidebar, from a user standpoint, is secondary. How many times do you guys need to see the special-projects thumbnails or the blogroll? A hundred? A thousand? You already know what’s there. So I removed it.

The tight formatting of the main content created discrete blocks. In terms of the site as a whole it achieved a certain balance but at the expense of readability. The lower-case formatting of the text kept these blocks heterogeneous but again at the expense of readability, to say nothing of grammatical precision. To remedy this I reformatted the text to give it, and your eyes, plenty of room to breathe. As a designer large type tends to illicit a sort of pavlovian cringe, but I also changed the fonts and enlarged the text somewhat in an effort at greater clarity.

Then there is the matter of the header. I really liked the old rotating headers. I think they said something about the attitude here and, well, they were pretty. But they were pretty huge as well. And again, how many times do return visitors need to see a logo that takes up half the screen? You know damned well where you are, wouldn’t a single line of simple text do just as well?

The nav-bar and all relevant content from the side-bar

Gentlemen, let’s Forget the past, its related errors, coarseness
Of parents, laxities, unrealities of principle Think of tomorrow. Make a firm postulate Of simplicity in desire and act… -Allen Tate.

And so that, as they say, is that. This is the new Nonist, an attempt at elegance in form and readability in function. As stated I’m not yet certain whether I’ve succeeded in these attempts, but for better or worse it’s done. We hear over and over that content is king. This new site is set up such that it will sink or swim on its content alone. Its a self-imposed challenge for me to craft some fine quality goodies because if I don’t there won’t be much else to look at.

I’m sure there will be hiccups and necessary tweaks (as such I encourage you all to let me know if you encounter problems). There are also a couple sections I’m still planning on launching (a gallery, a forum, a store, etc) but truth be told I’m sick of looking at code. So we’ll just take it all as it comes. Now all that remains is to see if I can remember how to blog. Here’s hoping.

04.30. filed under: announcements. !. design. ideas. 21

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