’90s-period CRT phosphor colours, monospace fonts, highly structured and interlinked data, emerging from over a year of conversations and work with the Merchants of Slime. Deep adoration for Web 1.0 aesthetics, sliding into contemporary possibilities for accessibility, interaction, responsiveness, and clarity.
By far the largest project I’ve undertaken, handling archival data management, utterly masses of PHP, JS, and CSS, and teasing out over months the design, aesthetic, and movement through hundreds of pages and thousands of media files – all while trying to keep it properly accessible, semantic, responsive, logical, even simple, while the phosphor burns the screen.
Heaps big thanks to Virginia Barratt and VNS Matrix for going, “Yeah, Frances is what we want.” And hectic reps to research assistant Clare Bartholomaeus for all the scanning and cataloguing.
Seems that keeping 3000 posts and 10,000 images updated takes about half a blog lifetime.
I moved from Movable Type to WordPress in 2009, and ditched ecto, the old blogging app, about the same time. Over the years, I wrote SQL queries, grepped the hell out of the database, redesigned the whole website (while keeping the same black and white aesthetic), recoded stuff, wrote some hella shonky redirections, and slowly went through all the posts turning images into galleries and using WordPress’ Featured Image, and then gave up on it all a couple of years ago before getting weirdly ‘inspired’ this weekend and doing 1000+ posts over the course of 2 days.
My database queries tell me all the galleries are now correct, and all the single images also. A stupid amount of work I hope I never have to do again, because I know my singular, obsessive focus will do it. Legit, my wrist is going ”WTF, Frances, WTfuckingF.” and if I keep blogging like this, eventually maintenance will take longer than there is days in a year.
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?
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.
I spent Sunday half immersed in Humans, and the Swedish original, Äkta människor, and half in code, following a passing musing to its conclusion. The former were and are quite brilliant; the latter was and is fiddly and peculiar, like all intersections of code and design. The latter began with me wondering exactly how difficult it might be to implement image overlays for supernaut without recourse to a plugin. This led to much reading and research, and deciding on Lightbox2 (instead of a plethora of others), taking half an hour to set up, and a few hours to get all nice looking (and nice-playing with caching). Of course it probably breaks all over the place, but the idea was to have the images fill as much of the browser as possible, with as little clutter as possible, and generally this seems to have happened.
Sometime in November, Hans emailed me and asked if I’d like to help build him a new website. “Of-fucking-Course!” He arrived in Berlin shortly after for two weeks, where we sat in Alte Kantine Wedding every day for quite a few hours. We started with putting together a framework for each project, and once that was up, I linked him to my laptop web server, him sitting on my right adding all the text, me bashing out code.
It took a pause from January ’til early-April, then another ’til May 15th, when we fiddled with the DNS and splurted it out into teh Interwebtubez: SOIT / Hans Van den Broeck.
Hans was someone I heard about when I was a student, They Kill We (Eat, Eat, Eat) the name in my head when I was bunking off to the library and reading Ballet International. I thought it sounded like the coolest shit out, and knew I was going to move to Europe to be in the middle of all that. Hans himself I met on my first trip to Europe, as a DanceWEBber at ImPulsTanz in Vienna where everything I’d imagined and hoped for on the continent was ten million times better. I didn’t do Hans’ workshop—stupid uninformed decision—but along with meeting Anna Tenta and Ivo, getting drunk with Hans on an all-night, cross-Vienna bender (I dunno, it might have even been two or three nights … those last few days …) was the formative experience for me at the festival. And that’s amidst seeing Jan Fabre / Troubelyn, Emio Greco, doing workshops with Frankfurt Ballet dancers, generally 6 weeks of unrelenting Mind=Blown!!!
I got to work with Hans on my final arrival in Europe, again at ImPulsTanz. He, Anuschka, Ivan, and Estelle snuck me out one evening for surprise Viennese birthday celebrations. I started regularly going to Brussels; it became a mandatory pleasure for drinking and eating, talking for hours together.
And I always thought his old website, the one he’d hand-built in iWeb—images with picture frames, odd sounds, text scapbooked around in different colours and sizes—I always thought that was one of my favourite websites ever. Because it looked like him; when you arrived, it could only be him.
When Hans asked me to design and build his new site, I said straight away, “I fucking loved your old site, it needs to be somehow like that, how it looks, the feeling of it.” We ransacked his scrapbooks (so many scrapbooks!)—one thing Hans is very good at is archiving, every work had at least enough, and for the more recent ones, far far more than we could possibly use. Then we got serious and dry: How to build a site that can be arranged in myriad ways while also having a manageable editing interface?
Ja, of course it’s in WordPress, and of course I used Advanced Custom Fields. Early on, I realised Flexible Content in ACF was the way to go. CSS gives amazing power to change design and layout, but not the order of things; jQuery and PHP can do that but not in a simple, flexible, drag-drop, non-code way that’s part of the editing process. Flexible Content fields for text, images, video, quotes, whatever could be dragged into any order; then I added some selectors for images, to change their alignment and size, which was the final key in building a structure that could result in a design where every page is somewhat different. Headings and the work info sidebar are exceptions to this, though it would be trivial to extend the structure to shift those also around wherever.
Then there was things like the coloured squares next to work titles, generated from categories and slapped together in some probably unholy mix of PHP, jQuery, and CSS. Or the video page. When Hans saw how videos are laid out in the WordPress admin editor, a grid of thumbnails, he said, “Yes. I want that! Can I have that?” It turned out to be pretty easy, just overwriting the standard WordPress video playlist shortcode for the video page in a function (using the admin editor code as a template), then arrange it all pretty like. The background images are just taking FlexSlider, stripping it down, then again using some styling.
What else? The randomly cycling quotes? Also ACF, PHP, some jQuery, including collision avoidance detection so the quote doesn’t run under the menu. And the menu uses an extremely nice piece of jQuery, BackgroundCheck, to compare the background colour to the menu and swap between light, dark, and neutral states so the text colour remains contrasty (not always but enough that I thought it was worth using).
The font is Klartext Mono from Heimatdesign via Fontspring … Oh! and the index page quote was a placeholder that remains for now because Hans liked it. It’s from Mechthild of Magdeburg.
I’ve been avoiding doing the cleaning of several years of posts, but somehow fell into it a couple of days ago, trying a few different approaches to get through the task until I found one that’s methodical, quick, and requires very little brain use. The problem is supernaut existed in a couple of different platforms before WordPress, and there remains (currently from August 2005 to December 2010) a lot of mess and pretty much all the images not properly linked. So I’m working through that, one month at a time, and while it’s certainly not exciting, I am getting to read back over ten years of blogging and my life.