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Perishable Press

Thinking About a Redesign and Trying to Get Unstuck

I want to redesign Perishable Press. The current design was released around a year ago, and has received numerous compliments and criticisms. Compliments tend to focus on the theme’s minimalist sensibilities, while criticism is generally directed at the design’s poor usability. Personally, I find the “grey-on-black” color scheme to be very inspiring. Others, however, have difficulties reading the content, and that’s not good.

So, throughout the course of the past year, the notion of yet another redesign has been slowly building momentum. Part of me could continue using the current theme for several more years with no complaints; yet another part of me is constantly dissatisfied with the status quo and established routine. These two parts have been doing battle, and on several occasions recently, some new design ideas have tried their best to spring forth, only to be shot down by the overwhelming critic within that sharply says, “no, that sucks — nowhere near as good as the current design..”

This process has made me realize one of the subtle downsides to a minimalist design: it’s difficult to go back to anything more complex. In producing this “dark” theme, my goal was to eliminate fluff, eradicate hype, and consolidate features. Thus the following page structure:

  • Title
  • Content
  • Menu

No subtitle, no sidebar clutter, no advertisements, no party badges — just good, clean minimalist design. Which is great until you try to improve upon it. And that’s precisely where I kept getting stuck. Rather than wiping the slate clean and completely forgetting about the single-column sentinel, I kept trying to improve upon it. Like, you know, trying to modify the width of the column, adding a sidebar, changing colors, text, and so on. But I kept getting stuck. The desire to redesign has been great, but apparently not great enough to do what is required in order to proceed.

At this point, I have put a lot of time and energy into thinking about how to improve the site. I have sketched countless design ideas, examined hundreds of inspiring sites, and even reached out to my Twitter followers for help. Doing these things were useful in that they eventually lead me to the inevitable realization that sacrifice is required to move forward. To get past my current state of design apathy, I have to break my attachment to the current design.

For the past several days, I have been dismantling my appreciation and fondness for the site’s current manifestation. It hasn’t been easy: denial, withdrawal, admission, acceptance — I feel like a recovering heroin addict or something. As I critique my own work, I have embraced observations such as the following:

  • Insufficient contrast between text and background
  • Insufficient search-engine optimization of site structure
  • More functionality needed in the comment area
  • Search results practically useless
  • Too difficult to find key content
  • Current design is boring, tedious
  • Site Archives are useless
  • Design is not welcoming

..and on and on. It’s like total design sacrifice — I am getting to where I actually hate the current design and can’t wait to change it. Without going into the psychology of it all, suffice it say that the experience itself is quite rewarding: “out with the old, in with the new,” as they say, somewhere, I’m sure. In other words, by giving up what you think is best for you (or your site), you are actually opening the doors to change and making way for something completely new and, hopefully, better.

Thus, after all that drama, I have finally arrived at a place where a fresh design for the site is possible, even anticipated. Behind the scenes, I am working diligently — even feverishly — on the next evolution of Perishable Press. At this point, all I can tell you is that it’s a complete detachment from the current “darker-and-more-minimal-than-thou” Perishable Theme. In subsequent articles, I will be sharing some of the ideas and methods involved with the planning and production of the new design, and look forward to hearing some of your thoughts on the art and science of redesign as well.

Jeff Starr
About the Author Jeff Starr = Creative thinker. Passionate about free and open Web.
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22 responses
  1. Jeff Starr

    As for using HTML 5 for the next design, I think it would be a hard sell. As Ryan points out, browser support is not currently strong enough to deliver consistent results. If I am going to spend another couple hundred hours redesigning my site, I certainly don’t want to leave its proper display in the hands of Internet Exploder or any other browser that fails to understand the markup. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the idea, and look forward to dishing out some fresh HTML5, but I don’t think now is the time to do so for a site such as this.

  2. I wouldn’t go with partial results, even though its irrelevant to me as I always click through to sites anyway.

    In reality, not everyone uses RSS – far from it. Those that do are doing it specifically because they either want to read stuff in their RSS reader and centralise their reading material, or because they simply want updatenotification.

    I’d imagine that if someone likes to centralise their reading material in one feed reader, preventing them from doing that will accomplish one thing: pissing them off. At the end of the day, RSS is a service designed to allow people to digest your content as they prefer. If you start trying to control it can only end badly.

    Besides, if people really want to comment then they will – having to click one link to do so isn’t going to put them off much. Just look at the response to this post. The reason your other posts might get less comments is because people just don’t feel they have much to add – that’s the real problem.

    You might want to add the comment widget to Feedburner to aid the process, of course. Last time I looked it lets you embed the current number of comments any given post has in the feed.

  3. @Ryan & Jeff: HTML5 is nicely displayed on Safari, Firefox, and also Opera I think. HTLM5 is a modern language, therefore it will be displayed on modern browsers.

    Cons:

    no support in IE (I haven’t tested, but who will bet the contrary?)
    still a draft, so some the implementation of some tags or attributes may be unclear/unconsistent (though, I haven’t had any problem so far)

    Pros:

    markup is gorgeous; for example, here’s the integral HTML5 code that reproduce the esthetic of my blog
    a child can maintain the code
    ready for the futur! (video/audio tags, native events, new browsers features)

    I think that writing a personnal blog should be a pleasure before everything. Jeff, you don’t make any money out of this place; the only satisfactions you get from writting here are the act of writting itself – I hope ;) – and the conversations that grow from there. Why would you forbid yourself to take pleasure coding your new design in glorious HTML5? This place should be for your enjoyment first.

    About some of the things that have been said now.

    Higher contrast?

    You’re all scarying me. Dan says:

    I just played with the css of your site in CSSEdit, and just changing the color of the type to white made a huge difference.

    Are you serious? White font on black background, and that feels better on your eyes than the actual contrast? you have to be kidding me :p

    The worst here is that you actualy convinced Jeff to make the fonts lighter! You may want to lighter the background color, but if you do that to the fonts, there won’t be much time before your last reader is at the hospital because his eyes have bled.

    I’m interested at the moment in easy-on-the-eyes design, and I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t achieve something like that with a very dark background. I may be wrong, but I think that there’s no just middle between too low and too high constrats, with dark designs. Also, every image you post here has to be treated not to “flash” when put in context. You wouldn’t had to deal with this on a lighter background design.

    But I understand your attachment to this idea, and I think I won’t make you change your mind on this one. I don’t think I had you on HTML5 either by the way :p

    A freaking sidebar!!?

    Ok I’m already dead.

    Partial feed

    Why would you do that? If a user is not interested a lot, if he’s skimming through his RSS feeds like he watches TV, you won’t make him come here, and suddently be interested and interesting; you will make him unsubscribe in the worst case, and in the better case you will have him continue his routine without even noticing that your feed is now truncated.

    As for your interested readers, you will frustrate some, like Will, who always use their RSS reader for reading your posts, and you won’t change anything for readers like me, who enjoy the current design, and always press enter in their RSS reader to come see the whole thing here.

    I can’t any good here.

    Overall thoughts

    The main problems have been underlined by everyone I think: low constrast, and your “super footer”.

    I don’t have any advice on how the avoid low constrast without touching the dark background. Though, you may be interested to look at what I’ve come for my homemade blog engine admin page (screenshot). Of course that’s far from the darker spirit you maintain here :)

    Though, for the footer, I see, if not a solution, a good starting point: eliminate the unrelated. When I’m on a post page, I don’t need the same tools as when I’m on the homepage. In my opinion, on an entry page, we should be able to: rapidly go to major sections of the website (archives, themes, contact, search, etc); get more related content (related posts, tags, maybe popular posts)

    That has to be my longest comment ever, but I wanted to say some things, and more importantly, as you said :

    In other words, by giving up what you think is best for you (or your site), you are actually opening the doors to change and making way for something completely new and, hopefully, better.

    I tried to picture this place with a sidebar, a white font on black background, and as this revolting vision was printing in my head, I knew I couldn’t let this happen.

    Now on a technical note, I think that “realign” would be more hype and would fit better than redesign, because you want to change things, but without losing the current spirit.

    I don’t want to lose it either.

  4. Hey, Jeff! I’m looking forward to seeing that new pink and green layout design!

    LOL! I could tell you to enlarge the font or change the colors, but the fact remains that in most cases… you have to redesign a site for you. There are plenty of bloggers out there who have designed a website that has a kajillion visitors, but because the design was built for them as opposed to for the blogger, they have to visit. I’m not saying discount the visitor, but I am saying at the end of the day you should feel comfortable doing what you want to do with your website. So, I’ll just say that I patiently await whatever you come up with and if you do something crazy like 6px font, I’ll just stick to the feed. LOL.

    If you want any help or anything, just ask. :)

  5. I’m 46 and hopelessly farsighted, so I find the color scheme and lack of contrast to be nearly impossible. On the other hand, I appreciate the minimalistic look. Added functionality doesn’t have to mean clutter. There is nothing inherently cluttered looking about sidebars. They only look bad when people fill them up with useless junk. Think very carefully about the most important information you want to present to your readers, and then devise a way to make it as easy as possible for them to find it. Eliminate everything that doesn’t serve that purpose.

  6. Hi, Jeff!

    I’ve been reading for a while now; learning of updates via RSS and clicking over because I like to actually experience the sites I read.

    I’ll throw in: I always change the theme to the dark background and increase font at least 3x. Folks have already covered these aspects, though!

    The super footer is another much-mentioned area for change; I’ve never used it because I don’t want to sort through it all.

    Also, the links to previous/next posts is not very intuitive, being placed at the end of the article in with the other metadata. What about moving it to the top as well, and/or below the comments. Better navigation, I think.

    I’m extremely interested in reading your coming thoughts on redesign (or “realign”) and seeing how the current design evolves!

  7. Your current design serves it’s purpose. I wouldn’t change anything. It’s simple, effective and actually quite inspiring. Then again, some of your readers seem to think otherwise.

    Whatever you decide to do, one thing’s for certain. You wouldn’t lose your audience. It’s all about content and I think we’d all agree that yours is just plain great.

    Good luck.

  8. Jeff Starr

    @Louis: Your concerns and ideas are appreciated and definitely provide guidance as I continue developing the new design. I hear your points about using HTML 5, but it will have to wait (on this site) for greater browser support. I have already worked with the new markup elements, and have to agree that it feels good, but if it leads to broken pages for my IE visitors, I need to avoid it. I may not collect any direct revenue from the content on this site, but it does represent me as a designer, so the more people that can deliver helpful content to, the better. Yes, it’s important to enjoy your site, but part of the satisfaction that I derive from this site is found in helping as many people as possible. Even IE users need help with htaccess you know!

    As for the sidebar, I am sorry to disappoint, but I have pretty much decided to go ahead and use one in the new design. Here is some of my reasoning for this decision. I think it’s a good one, especially given the visual dynamics of the next design.

    For the full-vs.-partial feed debate, I am leaning toward staying with the full feed. You and several others have reinforced my initial suspicions concerning this issue, and I will most likely continue to deliver full feeds to my subscribers.

    And finally (whew! long comment there, Louis!), even if you end up hating the new design (with the sidebar and dark background), fret not! All of my themes will remain available via subsequent designs. Who knows, I may wind up using this theme as well — even after implementing the new design! ;)

  9. Jeff Starr

    @Erika: Actually, I was thinking camouflage with red, white, and blue polka dots! Although I have always liked the whole pink and green motif..

    Seriously though, I appreciate the feedback. I know how important it is to make your own site’s design as enjoyable for yourself as possible, even at the expense of a few disgruntled visitors. The current dark theme is a perfect example of this: the entire design inspires me to write, post, and share comments like no other design I have ever used. I can’t explain it; it’s very intuitive and it “just fits.”

    Nonetheless, I am trying to reach out a bit more and continue my paltry efforts to increase readership, traffic, exposure, etc. In this regard, many aspects of the current design utterly fail. Much of my current motivation in redesigning the site is directed at improving the user experience and encouraging new visitors to stick around. So, even if I end up using this minimalist theme after the new design is launched, I will have done my best to improve usability and make more people feel comfortable with the site.

    Of course, I think 6-px font is way too small; I am thinking good ‘ol 8-px Verdana instead! :P

  10. Jeff Starr

    @Chris Berry: Excellent points! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Of course, actually implementing such a strategy is much easier said than done, but I intend to give it my best shot. Thanks for the feedback.

    @Anne: Ooh, yes! Great idea about relocating the post-to-post navigation to a more useful and prominent location. I don’t know if they will work with the design “above the posts,” but they will certainly find more use if placed below the comment area. Thanks for the idea! :)

    @John: Thank you for the generous comments. Greatly appreciated. As you may know, I value my readers above most everything else, so I would certainly be devastated if I were to lose them. In any case, I also think (not-so-secretly) that the current design is great, and fortunately will continue to make it available to like-minded users of the site. Thanks for the feedback!

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