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.

Update Mar 6/08: Having spent the time trying to get a theme that works the way that I want it to for this site, I’m realizing that WordPress has a long way to go before it has the tools and structure that work the way I want it to. Based upon what I’ve read, it looks like Gutenberg may emerge out of beta by mid 2018 and I’ll reassess by then. In the interim, I’m quite happy with this Scrawl WordPress theme and the modifications I’ve made to it. It almost has a feel to it. Even more so, it will allow me to easily add content in a variety of forms, long or short form.

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

After 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

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.

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.

Describing The Seemingly Indescribable Aspects of Creativity

Over the past five years or so, my work has been culminating and really starting to take on form for me.  To put it another way, it’s been synthesizing and crystallizing into clarity. As I’ve noted in my last post though, while this clarity has been emerging for me, it’s been difficult and a struggle to relay it to others though.

Articulating The Unknown

Particularly I remember one conversation with someone, where I expressed my desire to write my research all out into a cohesive form but how difficult it was to do so. This person had written some of his own fictional work already and said to me, “What’s the problem? You just need to write it out now.” The problem I think people like this are missing is that I’m not writing a fictional story, where I can just make up elements to make the narrative work, nor am I writing about something fully known, like writing a technical manual for some software. I’m writing about something that is unknown, yet struggling to be known.

The closest comparison I can give to trying to understand creativity is trying to understand quantum physics. You can’t just easily write out what you know and are observing because what you know and are observing often goes against everything conventionally know. As it was noted in an article I found the other day, this is because creativity destroys paradigms. So it’s like trying to explain something to someone in which you can’t use a basis of knowledge (i.e. an existing paradigm) to describe it. This is why people often have to use metaphors instead, saying at best it is similar to this or that.

Metaphors Bridge The Unknown

For myself, I’ve used metaphors existensively over the past years to try to encapsulate what creativity is like, yet I find trying to find and use just one metaphor often doesn’t fully encapsulate all of creativity. Thus I’m continually going in this loop, using different metaphors to describe it, yet unable to find a metaphor that encompasses it all. Because of this, I’ve been quite hard on myself, saying things like “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I figure this out?” But that all changed recently.

A few weeks back, I came across a new book entitled The Storm of Creativity by Kyna Leski and John Antonelli which I’m currently in the process of reading now. What pulled me to the book was the metaphor of creativity as a storm, as I’ve used similar metaphors describing creativity like a maelstrom, tempest, tornado,  and hurricane which has chaos on its outside, yet a calm stability within its core. What really excited me was the book structure though. In effect, while the storm metaphor was the overarching theme, each chapter tried to give a different perspective of creativity, thus helping you truly understand creativity only by synthesizing all of these diverse perspectives into one.

Why this is remarkable is that I’ve used this same metaphor to describe the creative process as well. In effect, the creative process is like virtually walking around something unknown, seeing it from different perspectives, and then synthesizing those differing, almost contradictory, perspectives into one integrated perspective which helps you understand it as a whole (which mirrors the often told Blind Men and The Elephant parable).

Being Comfortable With Ambiguity

So today, I now feel much more relaxed with my work and with my struggle to articulate it. In effect, if some of the leading people on creativity research are having difficulty articulating what it is, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself for my struggle in articulating it as well. To put it another way, this struggle is a normal part of the creative process itself. So while it may feel like you’re doing something wrong and failing, it’s actually a normal part of the process. Best of all, I’m excited because many of the metaphors I’ve used to try to articulate creativity are similarly being used by others to try to describe it as well. Thus collectively our differing perspectives are merging and finding a commonality with one another, helping creativity to take shape with even more clarity.

Tools That Limit My Creative Momentum

I feel like I’m at an important point in my life’s work, a point where it’s momentum needs to shift and change, transforming into something else, so that it can naturally evolve. The key problem I’m encountering with trying to increase this momentum is energy, specifically trying to maintain and increase this energy, thus increasing my momentum in turn.

For example, right now I have a process whereby I collect and gather information by reading it in digital Kindle book form or PDF form, by archiving website articles using PrintFriendly. This process is very fluid and easy, letting me highlight text using different colours to signify importance and also to annotate highlighted text with my own notes to connect them to this larger picture that I’m seeing. The key problem with this approach is that all of my research is hidden to everyone else though (yet it’s very portable, always with me, even offline).

I’ve tried other services to replicate this process publicly but my main concern as always is maintaining the life and portability of my research. I’m tired of my research being stuck or locked within a third party service and if that service goes out of business then I’ve lost all that work (at least from a public perspective, since most services allow you to export an archive of your work for yourself).

I’ve likened this throughout the years to constructing a telephone every time you want to make a phone call.

Of course the flip side of this is using open source software that you host yourself (i.e. WordPress) but with which doesn’t offer the same fluidity and ease of use compared to other third party services. So then I have to jump to trying to figure out ways to emulate this functionality within the software which deviates from my research itself. I’ve likened this throughout the years to constructing a telephone every time you want to make a phone call. It’s ludicrous and frustrating, as from my perspective, web software and platforms, haven’t really evolved that much over the last couple of decades.

All said and done thought, it’s where I have go though if I want to continue forward, building momentum. In effect, I need to stop, modify my own platform to my own needs, so that I can progress forward.