Grassimuseum Leipzig Architektur

Thursday, the day of the première of Melanie Lane’s Wonderwomen at LOFFT in Leipzig, I go museuming with Robert. To Grassimuseum for Angewandte Künste and Völkerkunde (that’s applied arts and design, and ethnology). Weimar Era Art Deco / Neue Sachlichkeit, stained glass, zinc and brass roofing, and warm, pink Rochlitz porphyritic tuff cut with lighter intrusions and grey phenocrysts (took me bloody ages to find out what the masonry is, and where it’s from: Rochlitzer Berg). It’s far from the blank solids and volumes of Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, full of detail and movement through unfolding verticals and diagonals, long, low and light, human-scaled, tactile and sensory. It’s meant for touch, brushing past, close up, not for overwhelming and insurmountability.


Neo-Grotesk Crypto-Brutalist

End of March, right when I’m throwing finally together my design portfolio (I swear I resisted, and now love having one), Emile asked if I might want to hurl together something for him. Something Web1.0, something like we’d handcode in HTML in the late-’90s, not quite something MySpace in the days of its browser-crashing gif-frenzy inferno, but definitely something that would be in its lineage; something tuner Nissan Skyline, unassuming on the surface, but all Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift when you pop the hood. Something Helvetica, Neo-Grotesk, what’s getting called Brutalist right now, though not traipsing behind a fashion; this is Emile and when I was looking through years of his work putting his new website together, he has a deep love and understanding of the aesthetic, and the art and philosophy underpinning it.

First things first:

Emile: I have two websites. Can we make them one?
Frances: Yes!
Emile: Can we do all these other things?
Frances: OMG Yes!

Lucky I’d just done my portfolio, cos that gave me the framework to build on without having to bodge together fifty different functions and stuff. Saves a few hours there, which we made good use of in timezone-spanning conversations on typography, aesthetics, and usability.

First off, getting all those years of blog posts and work projects into a single database / website / organism. I used the hell out of interconnect/it’s Search & Replace DB script, merging, shuffling, shifting, getting rid of old code, jobs that would take a week or more to do by hand, done in seconds. We’d pretty much sorted out structure and functionality in a couple of afternoons; for a website that looks so simple, it was most of two weeks diligent work, back-and-forth conversations, picking away at details, (stripping and rebuilding, stancing, slamming, tuning … we are very good at turning all this into hoonage, especially with 24h Le Mans in the middle).

Obviously it had to be ‘Responsive’, look hella flush hectic antiseptic no matter what device, and for me (recently taking this stuff proper serious) it had to also be ‘Accessible’. I put those words in scare-quotes cos they’re kinda bullshit.

It occurred to me as I was finishing, that for a website to be neither responsive nor accessible — for example it looks crap if the screen size is too small or not ‘right’, or you can’t navigate with keyboard or screenreader — you have to actively remove this functionality. You have to break the website and override browser default behaviour. It’s a very active process to systematically remove basic functionality that’s been in web browsers since the beginning. You also have to actively not think, not empathise, intentionally not do or not know your job. Me for probably all of my earlier websites.

The funny thing is, it’s not really any additional work to make sure basic responsive and accessible design / functionality is present; the process of testing it always, always, always brings up usability issues, things I haven’t thought of, little points that become involved discussions about expectations, interactivity, culture, philosophy. Like ‘left and down’ is back in time, and ‘right and up’ forward; 下个礼拜 / 上个礼拜. Next week / last week. Yet the character for ‘next’ is xià, down, less than, lower; and ‘last’ (in the sense of ‘previous’) is shàng, up, more than, higher. So how to navigate between previous and next posts or projects turns into an open-ended contextual exchange on meaning.

And ‘responsive’, ‘accessible’? Basic, fundamental web design. Not something tacked on at the end.

Back to the design. System fonts! Something I’ve not done in years, being all web-font focussed these days. Another trip through the wombat warren of devices, operating systems, CSS declarations. It’s crazy impressive how deep people go in exploring this stuff. Emile Blue! A bit like International Klein Blue, and a bit like Web / HTM 4.01 Blue. But not! We worked this in with a very dark grey and very slightly off-white, bringing in and throwing out additional colours, and managing in the end to sort out all the interaction visual feedback though combinations of these three — like the white text on blue background for blockquotes. Super nice.

As usual, mad props to DreamHost for I dunno how many years of hosting (it was Emile who said to me, “Frances. Use DreamHost.”), WordPress for running Emile’s old and new sites (and all of mine), and Let’s Encrypt for awesome and free HTTPS. And to Emile for giving me the pleasure of making the website of one of my favourite artist.

Emile’s new website is here:

Slight Improvements to Accessibility & Structured Data

Coding while sick!

Recent supernaut museum photography blogging got me thinking about image metadata (both Exif for camera-applied metadata, and IPTC for image-specific person-added metadata), and how I could set up a workflow to better implement this – particularly IPTC which is something I’d need to add and can partially automate, rather than Exif, which the camera adds – and how to persuade WordPress (or straight PHP / some method of database demonology) to scrape that and output it into Schema structured data.

I started doing heavy Schema work on as a way of making the huge amount of data comprehensible to search engines, and by extension, to humans, and have grown to like it a lot (also microformats, which WordPress uses) for making sense of what is otherwise a string of decontextualised words and media. I’d already schema-fied Dasniya’s blog, so mostly it was copy-pasting, then combining into supernaut’s structure – where the design had taken far too many liberties with accessibility and structured data.

So, now all posts spit out at least minimally useful structured data, and posts with images, galleries, or video spit out additional Schema structured data for those objects. Once I start using IPTC for my images, I’ll look at a way of including that in the Schema as well. (Though combining all that into useful objects from experience with Tiptree can be hilariously obtuse.)

On the accessibility side, I’d realised sometime in the past I’d been seriously shitty in supernaut’s design, basically a fucking horrible website to get around for anyone using keyboard navigation, screen-readers, or other methods non-trackpad + eyeballs. Accessibility is something I’ve been increasingly enjoying coding and designing for, along with structured data, particularly for websites that are highly designed and plain fucking arty – I find it gratifying to make hugely complex sites that remain structurally coherent and accessible no matter what device or method a person uses to access it – because there’s often an inverse relationship between design ‘woo!’ and usability ‘yay!’

So, keyboard navigation now is useable and hopefully much clearer, visual styling of user interaction also. Not as good as it could be, but getting there, and vaguely aiming for all of supernaut to be at least somewhat accessible – including and especially my museum visits.


Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie — Art Nouveau Kilim

I wanted the first one for a scarf or shawl and the second hanging on my wall.

Reading: Charles Stross — The Trader’s War

There are a couple of series I am slowly buying my way through, one is the Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an’s The Water Margin, or Marshes of Mount Liang as it’s known in this version, and which will take me a long time to get through all five volumes of some 500 pages each. The other is Charles Stross’ rewriting of his Merchant Princes sextet, which I’ve read three or so times in that form, and which was published in a re-edited and somewhat rewritten trilogy form (by combining the three pairs of books) last year.

Why would I buy a book I already have, and have read? With The Water Margin, it’s not just the translation I’m interested in – though the Dent-Youngs is one of the best; different versions also have different numbers of chapters, and so tell a different story. Somewhat the same with The Merchant Princes, the revised versions cut out a lot of padding of the recap kind, and generally tighten things up a little. I would have to read them together to consciously notice the changes, but the difference in feeling is apparent.

Also, and highly important for me, the original (US series) covers were diabolical, the utter worst of pulp fantasy, I could not reconcile those covers with the author I knew to be one of the most interesting sci-fi writers currently around, it was like a perverse joke. Though the current covers are equivalently of a much more masculine and bolder design (the UK ones at least); much less traumatising for the intended reader. And this could be a problem in itself. Cover design, like all advertising informs the potential audience if they are indeed being aimed at. Being moderately reductionist here, sci-fi has been (and remains somewhat) the market aimed at heterosexual males, while fantasy is for females (I would suggest here sexuality isn’t important).

The Merchant Princes was originally marketed as a fantasy series, however much it was built on an absence of dragons and magic. Now, on the tail of Stross’ successes with The Laundry Files, Halting State, and Saturn’s Children series, it’s being presented as unambiguously as sci-fi, despite using the devices of fantasy. Obviously it can be looked at from either perspective and make sense, and consequently appeal to either or both audiences. It’s the marketing and intended audience that I seem to be writing about now.

It’s no secret that book covers are aimed blatantly at male or female audiences; the original US and revised UK I think cannot be interpreted otherwise. Yes, cover design and genre focus has changed in the last decade, we’ve moved on conclusively from space opera as being synonymous with sci-fi, design tends to starker, more graphic elements than softer realism. Compare Iain Banks covers over three decades for an excellent example of the swing between hard graphics and soft photorealism, or Stross’ own from Iron Sunrise to Merchant Princes, or China Mieville’s.

Within this is far more subtlety and diversity than I’ve considered here, yet it remains that the original covers featured a single woman on four of the six books (the other two had medieval knights in armour with machine guns), and the new ones feature guns, missiles, helicopters, nothing to indicate sci-fi or fantasy, nor that the leading protagonist (and quite a few of the other main roles) is a woman. Perhaps it’s a trick to get that male audience to read such a work, but it nonetheless concerns me, not simply for this instance, but the larger habit in culture of pushing the female audience and community out once something reaches a certain size and aiming entirely for the supposedly all-important male audience.

So while I found the original covers cringeworthy, the sci-fi fantasy equivalent of being told I need special women’s tools or bikes or climbing gear and here it is in pink, the new ones are possibly more of a problem. They signify Stross is an author being aimed entirely at a specific market segment, one largely comprised of hetero males, and this notwithstanding the female (and feminist) lead roles in almost all his books, as well as many GLBT roles. Perhaps it is as I’ve said, a covert, educational project, getting an audience who would never normally read books with main characters like this, but when this audience can get through a whole book (I think Halting State) and not realise the main characters are queer, and then argue against the need for such characters, I wonder if perhaps this courting of the default audience is taking place at the expense of the rest of us, who incidentally happen to be the majority and are quite partial to throwing our euros towards those who neither patronise nor dismiss us.

Also to note, Stross has said in the past on many occasions he has no say at all in the cover designs, and also I’m enjoying immensely visiting Miriam and her scary family again.

Video Arrives


I’m working on a website for Lewis at the moment, and taking horrendous liberties with WordPress’ Post Formats — more-or-less a Tumblr division of posts depending on the post content — which in turn I’m recycling into supernaut, as when I first decided to rapidly upgrade, I wanted to be able to use all the things in WordPress I then couldn’t. So, Asides and Status were simple-ish, and now Video. I need to spend some time on the design and layout, because supernaut has never had something image-like so large splattered across its barren, white expanse. Nonetheless, all this has rejuvenated my love of supernaut and blogging.