More Redesign Rambling: Columns and Sidebars

After announcing my intention to redesign Perishable Press, I received some great feedback addressing everything from site architecture and navigation to appearance and usability. As the conversations continue, I want to spend some time thinking about usability, navigation, columns and sidebars. The current minimalist design features a single column layout with no sidebars. Content is located prominently front and center, with all navigational links appearing in either the oversized “footer” area or at the end of each individual post. As several people have pointed out, such navigational strategy (or lack thereof) discourages visitors from digging deeper into the site. Apparently, the pile of links at the bottom of each page — the menu, as I like to call it — requires far too much effort to decipher. I mean, really, just because it all makes perfect sense to me, doesn’t mean that everyone else will “get it” too.

So, here is where I’m at so far with the next redesign. I have a good idea of what the overall design will look like. Although I am going with another dark background throughout the site, I will be focusing my initial efforts largely on usability. The text will be larger and lighter to provide better contrast and readability against the dark background. Because of this improved usability, there will be no need for a secondary, “high-contrast” stylesheet; however, as I am aware that there will always be people who have issues reading light text on a dark background, I will provide an easy and hopefully obvious way for users to switch to one of my 14 or so alternate themes (including the current one). So, we will have bigger, better-contrasted text, especially for paragraphs, lists, and other “texty” areas. Links will also be better emphasized with a solid underline. Although I disagree with some of the more hardcore linkologists out there who insist on highly contrasted, underlined text on every link throughout the site, I do agree that links need to be clearly identifiable, especially within <p> text.

Beyond these general usability improvements, I am still grappling with the best way to implement a solid navigational system. With the current single-column theme, the location of navigational elements is really a matter of vertical positioning within the page. You know, main links near the top, post-related links in the middle, and miscellaneous links at the bottom. To move beyond this fairly limiting situation, it seems necessary to embrace a multi-column layout. I really like some of the new “magazine-style” layouts that people have been reiterating and cannibalizing for the past year or so, but I am not really excited about the rigidity, formality, and predictability of such designs. One of the great things about some of these new, “non-traditional” designs, however, is that they are really pushing the envelope in terms of how content may be arranged on a page. For example, I have seen some great designs where a double-width sidebar is broken up vertically into various regions, with single-width and double-width panels alternating alongside the page’s main content. Other great layouts mix and match multiple columns in very creative ways, obscuring clearly defined sidebar regions into overlapping “featured-content” panels. Really, the possibilities are endless and often overwhelming.

Fortunately, this site has certain design requirements that eliminate many of the more frivolous and experimental layouts. For example, I want to keep a strong focus on content by displaying articles prominently and with as few distractions as possible. In the current minimalist design, I became obsessive about this requirement, emphasizing article content at the expense of everything else. Unfortunately, this strategy now manifests its own navigational shortcomings, and thus needs to be tempered with a strong dose of usability for the next design. Given this reasoning, I am thinking about implementing a simple two-column layout, featuring content on the left and a sidebar on the right. The crux of this plan rests on having two page regions — content and sidebar — that are consistent and well-defined throughout the vertical length of each page. This, I think, will enable the content and navigational tools to coexist peacefully alongside one another with minimal interference. This may seem completely obvious to those of you who already grasp the functional and aesthetic significance of the common sidebar, but I honestly had to “think this one out” before understanding it well enough to embrace the concept.

So why not two sidebars, either adjacently positioned or straddling the main content? First, the width of the main content area needs to be at least as wide as it is now, due to self-imposed dimensional constraints of images and other post content. To include two sidebars into a layout that is say, 1024 pixels wide, leaves less than 250 pixels for each sidebar. This may work for some, but for me, that is just not enough room for anything other than badges, links, and icons. Trying to force full-post titles into 250 pixels requires small font sizes, broken lines, or both. Then, once you try cramming any worthwhile amount of content into such a narrow column, the sidebar begins to look forced, tedious, and cluttered. Add a second sidebar to the mix — on either side of the main content — and you might as well save yourself the agony and just download a ready-made theme instead. Thus, for the next redesign, I am going with a nice, wide, single sidebar that will be kept as clean and simple as possible. Anything less limits effective navigation; anything more detracts from the main content.