If effort is to be expended, it ought to be expended carefully, precisely, thoughtfully.
The Notebook of Sand has come together from bits of thought gathered, compounded carefully over several years, although it only took two months to put together. As I learn more about design, more about psychology, more about writing and hypertext, this site will change. But the goals (readability, deep hypertext, simplicity, thoughtfulness, compatibility) will always be the same.
This website is the fourth version of rubberpaw.com. The previous version, The Lair of the Rubber Paw and his Mysterious Horde of Jellicle Cats, used Wiki technology to organize the website like a classic text adventure, an idea inspired by Interactive Fiction master Andrew Plotkin. Although I still believe it's possible to make this method work, the task is too large for my free time. A compelling narrative would require months of planning, and my intention to let organic structures develop naturally? -- It completely flopped. I slumped into permitting the Wiki to define my Information Architecture rather than let the Wiki enable me to enhance my capabilities. A month of programming and writing down the drain, I looked for another solution.
The answer was Tinderbox. This piece of software, which I reviewed for Sitepoint.com, gives the author high-powered, feather-sensitive information managing capabilities without going out of control. A true hypertext tool, Tinderbox is useful for more than websites, but the review goes into more detail. Tinderbox allows me to manage all of my writing in one place; my current Tinderbox file contains much more than the contents of this website. In the file can be found contact information, TODO items, RSS feeds, drafts of work-in-progress articles, maps of my current research projects, and even lists of the books I own and have loaned from the library.
What good is this? Here's a simple example: If I check a book out of the library, say, Technology in America, edited by Carroll W. Pursell. The book might spin off new ideas and thoughts that become blog posts. Tinderbox can track all the connections, influences, auto-organizing the flow of text and ideas that blend into my life, thought, and writings. And it will display these connections, allow me to travel through them, and discover things about myself, about the things I read, that teach me, surprise me, and spin off more writings.
The color scheme on this site is unusual. Many designers may even find it rather jarring. It breaks the unspoken, un-IM-ed rules. Dark backgrounds are frowned upon, perhaps even Considered Harmful. For many years, I used black text on an off-white, slightly-beige background color. Then I bought a Palm, which I used to read E-books. White text on a black background was the easiest on my eyes, even though years of books (designed in the days of candlelight) had accustomed me to consider white backgrounds more readable. This changed when I read about Irlen Syndrome. When I noticed that hypertext guru Mark Bernstein used dark backgrounds and light colors, I let go of my black-and-white tendencies, clinched my teeth, and embraced a world of color. The trick, of course, was to choose colors that are easy on the eyes yet readable and stylish. If the colors are too similar, then the reader strains the eyes to distinguish the text. If the colors are too dissimilar (and not close in saturation), they attack the eyes.
Link colors are subtle but noticeable. This makes sense, because colors are not the real point. My blind friend Matthew Vollbrecht never sees colors, certainly not link colors, when he browses the web. Besides, as Mark Bernstein says,
Unless the design is the point of your site, select colors and visual elements that support without dominating."
I planned the site's colors to be more subtle, but in the end, I settled for more contrast, since not everyone is sitting in front of a properly color-corrected screen. Even this must be accounted for.
Variable width layouts make sense, so I chose fixed width. This is, I am afraid, another effect of reading on a handheld device. Well, not really. It's actually a combination of speed-reading technique, newspaper layout, and reading on a handheld device. Newspapers use columns because they reduce the number of eye movements required to read a text, and thus increase reading speed. I noticed this effect on my Palm, as I zipped through Flatland, The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Red House Mystery much more quickly with better comprehension than I would have in a bound volume.Thinking back to my training in speed-reading (which I have unlearned so I can analyze texts; reading slow is a greater skill than reading quickly), I remembered all of the physiology. At school, reading anthologies with long lines, I would often lose my place.
Everything came together when I began to browse the web with thin windows. See, I hated reading online, reading on the screen until I used thin windows. I would lose my place, because I would fill the wide page with text. When I began using thin windows, reading on screens became easy and preferable (aside from the inability to use my pen in the margins).
Taking these ideas into account, I decided not to let it up to the reader to discover the same principles. Again, when I noticed that Mark Bernstein had the same idea on his personal page, my decision was sealed.
I did steal one rather large layout idea directly from Mark Bernstein, although my thoughts about columns and newspapers would most likely have directed me toward the idea at some point. By including whole paragraphs and many sorts of varied information where a navigation bar would normally be found, Mark encouraged me to think differently about websites, to free myself from the cliches and standard design practices. After all, if I am to be a Scavenging Geek Luddite, I ought to be seeking function among the Internet's mass of form, style, and tradition.
Oh that? Well, I didn't want to copy Mark too closely.
Originally, fancy graphics, cool taglines, and a neat logo inhabited the box at the top left. But I tend to gravitate to simplicity, and I felt that the bare text would be more strikingly stylish than all the logos in the world.
I'm still playing with this. The text is sans-serif (on a Mac, geneva. on GNU/Linux, Lucida), but I'm considering a switch to a serif font. Common web practice has been sans-serif, but I have read arguments for both sides. Serif seems to be promoted in print publications, where psychological studies seem to indicate that serif is more readable. The titles, to stand out slightly from the body text, are serif.
Line spacing is important. Since the space between the lines is unusually large, readers will be less likely to skip a line or lose their place within the paragraphs. This is another idea from Mark Bernstein's site.
Do you have any comments or suggestions for the design/layout of the site? Are you having problems viewing or reading? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.