Considering Web Design Again

After being ecstatic about the future direction of Gutenberg and even more excited about the future direction of CSS Flexbox and Grids and how they both work together, I’m at a point in my life where I’m seriously considering getting back into web design again.

Having said that, over the past few days I’ve been reviewing where all of these things are at in terms of their development and usage to see if it’s worthwhile to start working with these now. Based upon what I’ve found, I don’t think it’s worthwhile getting on board just yet, at least for myself, due to the following reasons.

  1. Gutenberg is still probably at least a half year away from completion.
  2. While Flexbox seems to be gaining traction, there doesn’t seem to be many style editor plugins that incorporate it yet (i.e. Microthemer does include it).
  3. CSS Grids almost have little to no adoption yet, so I haven’t really seen any developer tools that I’d like to use incorporating them yet. Even more so, very few theme developers seem to be developing with it either.

All said and done, if I can find a theme developer that is really breaking new ground with Flexbox and CSS Grid within their themes (even providing customizations due to their flexibility) then I’d seriously consider web design again. The key thing in all of this is that I don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel and relearn everything from scratch. Rather, I want someone else to invent the wheel for me, as a foundational tool, that I can then build upon and modify to my needs, as well as for the needs of others.

Update Jan 17/08: Completely rethinking this.

What I just realized is that I’m no better off if I wait to dive into this all. In effect, I have needs in terms of my website right now and I’m finding most WP themes don’t meet my functional needs no matter how great they look.

All said and done, to meet my needs right now, I’ll may as well dive in building templates with WordPress right now since certain aspects of it will still exist when Gutenberg is launched, whereas other aspects will completely disappear. The key thing is to not to lose track of what will disappear when Gutenberg is released, so that I don’t waste too much time learning it, only to discard it later.

Whats clearly evident though is I need to map out both my current needs and vision of what I would like WordPress to become (i.e. my next gen CMS vision).

Update Jan 19/08: Seems I’m not alone in this situation. Spoke to PixelGrade, a prominent WP theme developer, and they are in a sort of holding pattern as well, waiting for Gutenberg to stabilize and finalize before they fully test it and update their existing themes for it. Seems to me there’s not too much I can do if I want to work on web stuff for Gutenberg until it actually stabilizes. In effect, the foundation of my work will be based upon it, so can’t do much until that foundation is stabilized.

My Past Towards The Future of the Web

In the 1990’s, I was fascinated with the emergence of the Web, as well as the emergence of online multiplayer video games. I built online communities around these video games in my personal time which eventually lead to professional work as a Senior Web Developer building communities hubs for notable video game publishers such as Sierra, Activision, and Konami.

Discovering Squarespace

Squarespace LogoAfter the Bomb period though in 2001, I went freelance and eventually discovered Squarespace in 2004 as a web publishing platform and I absolutely loved designing with it. As an integrated platform, Squarespace was light years ahead of the competition, incorporating a way to structure, layout, and style a website, all within a browser. Because of this, you could rapidly develop a website in just a few days or weeks instead of few months. At the time, I saw so much potential and evolving possibilities for the platform.

With the release of Squarespace Version 5 and Version 6 though, it was becoming more and more apparent that the platform was not going in the direction I had hope for. When Version 5 was launched in 2008, I remember being told you could build “anything” with it but after addressing my concerns, no public admittance of the limitations of the platform came out until a Squarespace 2010 Roadmap post. Hoping Version 6 would address these concerns in 2012, the platform as a whole was almost completely neutered for a rebuild, losing most of its flexibility and functionality to become more of backend developer platform, rather than the stellar front end designer platform it once was.

What I Had Hoped Squarespace Could Be

Throughout the years using Squarespace, I had been asked what I wanted it to become and I think in 2012, when I launched Evolution for Squarespace Version 5, I think this was a cumulative last ditched attempt at articulating what I had hoped it could be. Evolution was basically a javascript-based framework file that you loaded onto your Squarespace site, thus empowering it with more flexibility and functionality, thus overcoming the limitations of the platform.

The idea and inception for Evolution actually started out years earlier when I was much more involved in the Squarespace community forums. At that time, I kept seeing different people coming forward with the same problems and yet nothing ever got fully resolved or made easier. While I tried to help people out solving specific problems, I found that it was like sticking a finger in a dam that kept sprouting one leak after another. In effect, to solve all of these problems, a completely new way of working with the system needed to be devised.

While I tried to help people out solving specific problems, I found that it was like sticking a finger in a dam that kept sprouting one leak after another.

While Evolution includes features for incorporating Grids and additional Styles (i.e. magazine style elements such as hero images with text overlay options) on your Squarespace site, it was its Placement feature that was its primarily selling point. In effect, it allowed a person to move Squarespace content blocks anywhere on their site rather than just within the page or post content area. This was something not even Squarespace Version 6 could do.

Alas, while there was evident community interest for these features within Evolution, once people realized they had to manually activate these features using CSS “Activator” classes, they quickly lost interest. In effect, people wanted these features integrated into Squarespace, not hacked on top of it. Unfortunately most of these people didn’t realize that you couldn’t modify Squarespace core features, only Squarespace could do that. Therefore, without much further ado, my professional web design career ended.

Common Conventional Problems

What is interesting to note though is that after web design, my interests gravitated to community development and how that related to organizational development, more specifically The Future of Work. What’s amazing to realize is that upon reflection of both of these interests, web publishing and organizational development, both at their core have very similar problems. They both try to force people to work in limited ways with predefined behaviours of functionality “hard coded” into the system, rather than letting people flexibly construct their own behavioural functionality that works for their own unique needs.

They both try to force people to work in limited ways with predefined behaviours of functionality “hard coded” into the system…

For example, most web publishing platforms let you create a blog which is a collection of posts, formatted in a typical fashion, and sorted in reverse chronological order. The beauty of Squarespace Version 5 and earlier was that it didn’t limit you to this. Any end user with no coding experience whatsoever could create a collection of posts sorted alphabetically or chronologically by making a few adjustments to the block settings, thus allowing them to create an alphabetic company directory using categories to define the different departments of the company. In comparison to achieve the same simple modification in Version 6, you would need to be a Web Developer with years of experience under your belt.

Another example is the usage of blocks for content creation, which Squarespace itself introduced as its Layout Engine in Version 6. This was truly a ground breaking leap for Squarespace but it limited its usage to just the page and post content area, rather than letting the end user layout and build their entire website with it (i.e. header, content, sidebar, footer).

WordPress: Gutenberg

WordPressAfter leaving Squarespace, I did try to find an alternative platform comparable to it but nothing came close. I did eventually settle on using WordPress for my own site but I found its community highly fractured, all using different approaches, thus making jumping from one theme to another highly frustrating. In comparison, switching themes in Version 5 and earlier of Squarespace was a breeze, as all of the templates utilized the same HTML structure and CSS class Selector names, thus making it extremely simple to modify a new theme.

Matt Cromwell's First Impressions of Gutenberg
Matt Cromwell’s First Impressions of Gutenberg

When WordPress initially announced Gutenberg, it first came across as a “new editor” that would provide enhanced functional and flexibility to WordPress. This somewhat peaked my interest and gave me hope for using WordPress for design and development again but what I really wanted was something that went beyond just the content area. Low and behold, after being out of the loop on the status of developments for Gutenberg for a while, I was stunned to watch a December 2017 WordCamp presentation by Morten Rand-Hendriksen in which he articulated capabilities within it that mirrored my own idea of a next generation CMS (see 18;00 minute mark of video), similar to what I had wanted Squarespace to become.

This to me is The Future of the Web. It is what I had initially envisioned a decade ago. That this same vision is being seen, understood, and accepted by WordPress, the most popular open source web publishing platform on the planet, just blows my mind even more so because it means they are building it for a community with easy sharing and portability in mind. I can hardly wait!

This to me is The Future of the Web.

In closing, let me just say this. While I’m thankful for Squarespace for truly breaking ground in using LEGO-like blocks to build a website, initially with “blocks” being page modules and then later creating actual block elements on a page / post level with the Layout Engine, I’m so glad it is an open source company such as WordPress that is taking this next big leap, as it will hopefully open up a new accessible frontier for the Web as a whole.