What’s In A Date?

A few weeks ago on App.net, Oluseyi Sonaiya explained the reasons behind the decision to not use the standard blog format on his well-written website, Now Let Us Try Earnestness. Although I cannot find the original posts he wrote explaining the reasoning, I don’t mind trying to paraphrase his ideas here in this post as I use it to discuss the most recent redesign of this, my personal website. But first, some background.

Over the last three years I’ve managed to go through quite a number of layouts and revisions on here that made it easier — in my opinion — to read the words written on the website. The last revision was heavily inspired by Jeffery Zeldman, arguably one of the most talented and forward-thinking web designers on the planet. If you look at his site you’ll see a lot of elements that I pretty much copied for my own theme. The general colour scheme and font-size being the two main areas. The theme was created at a time when I was particularly frustrated with the state of web advertisements and the difficulty people have simply reading a website which, correct me if I’m wrong, is the whole reason we visit websites.

The Zeldman theme, which is freely available for anyone who uses 10Centuries, was the first design that put readability ahead of everything else. Anything that was not absolutely essential was stripped out. Tags were eliminated. Sidebars were removed. Links were made easier to identify. The colours were even used to make reading the site for extended periods of time easier on the eyes. A lot of thought went into the design despite how much of it was originally imagined by Mr. Zeldman. This new theme takes the minimalistic approach even further.

What would a blog look like if it were a printed book? This is a question that people who write for the web have asked a lot over the years, though I’ve never really enjoyed the creative works that tried to answer the question. As one would expect, something that is designed for a digital screen that can be any length does not scale very well when handicapped by the unforgiving constraints of a physical medium. The best printed format for a social media timeline would likely be a roll of toilet paper, as the endless scroll that we find on various social networks allow a screen hight of a million pixels or more. Blogs can also appear as an endless stream, as sites like Tumblr prove, but tend to stick to a few hundred or a few thousand pixels.

I’ve been thinking about this question quite a bit over the last few weeks, since reading a single post from Oluseyi regarding the insignificance of a date field on a number of web articles. Dates are important when it comes to adding order and perhaps greater historical context, but they’re ultimately unnecessary on a website that is not acting as a personal diary. This, my personal site, started out as an online diary of sorts in 2005 before morphing into a travelogue and finally into a place for me to “brain dump” and share pictures of my dog. The site has stuck with this same format for more than half a decade, so why stick to a design that screams “blog”?

All On A Single Page

So with all this in mind, I sat down and hammered out this minimalistic, Kindle PaperWhite-inspired design. Aside from the Flattr button, this is a monochromatic construction employing the power of CSS3 to render colourful images as greyscale1. A monospaced font was chosen to simplify reading and provide a traditional feel, while standard web conventions like differently-coloured links were eschewed in favour of maintaining consistency. One place where I deviated from black and white is the highlighting. Select a series of words and the background will be yellow as though you had used the yellow highlighters that are ubiquitous around school campuses the world over.

The order of the pages have also been flipped around. Typically when we visit a website, the most current publication is front and centre just like it should be. In a paper book, the most recent publication is never at the front, though, so why provide the illusion that we’re at the front of a website? There’s no such thing, after all. So at the bottom of the page people will be able to see the ridiculous number of blog posts that are on this site at any given time and where they are in the sequence. Navigation has also been flipped around to more accurately portray an English-language book that moves from left to right. Previous articles are to the left, while the more recent are to the right.

This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I like it. I like it a lot.

Keeping with the book theme, the archives are even designed to have what looks like page numbers.

Archives in Order

The very first blog post, ostentatiously published at the moment of my birth at the tail end of the 1970s, shows a page number of 1, and every post afterwards is properly ordered based on their publication date. Those trailing dots you see are also done through CSS, though there are some complications with them from time to time. Sadly, this is not nearly as elegant as what we can get in a Microsoft Word file.

Something I’m particularly happy with, though, is search. For a long time the search function has been on each and every page of my websites. But why? Do people really use them? More often than not, people will use the search engine of their choice. Printed pages are also devoid of most handy search mechanisms2, so why set aside space for this feature? People who visit the archives are more likely looking for something than the average visitor, so it makes much more sense to put this helpful tool there.

But there’s a twist; search on this theme is a little more interactive.

Interactive Search

Search has long been one of the weak points of the 10Centuries platform and it’s something I’ve been working on over the last few years to make better. One of the biggest hurdles is how to make search comprehensive while keeping it fast. While there is still a bit of work to do, I believe the solution is inching ever closer to reality. 10Centuries allows people to import their content from other places and include the data in search results. This means that when people perform a search on this website they’re querying through over 140,000 items that have been uploaded over the years. The comprehensive search returns App.Net posts, Tweets, Podcasts, and blog posts that are publicly visible. Sadly, response times on this site are around 5 seconds per query. Most of the other sites I’ve tested this on are much closer to 100 milliseconds, which is where search should be regardless of the size of the dataset.

This search function is pretty good, but it’s not great just yet. One of the many features that needs to be added is the option to limit results to various data types. If we are looking for a blog post that was written with certain words, we should have the option to hide social network results. This filter will be made available in the near future.

Naturally, the theme is designed with mobile in mind and will adjust the fonts, textboxes, buttons, and other elements according to the size of the screen. There’s really no reason for a site not to do this in 2015.

So there we go. Oluseyi doesn’t stick to the blog format in his writing and neither do I, so why stick to the standard blog design when we don’t have to? He also rightly points out that dates are superfluous on articles that are not time-based. I wholly agree with his sentiments but never really put it all together in a cohesive manner until recently. This theme does it all.

Thank you, Oluseyi, for unknowingly pointing me in the right direction.

I should probably also mention that this design, PlainText, is available to everyone who uses 10Centuries as a free theme.

  1. If you’re viewing this in an RSS reader, you’ll still see colour photos. Only the website will be monochromatic.
  2. I do like a good dictionary that has the clever cuts in place to let us quickly find words beginning with a specific letter, though.
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