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.
After the Dot.com 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
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 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.
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).
After 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.
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!
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.