Notepads, blogging, minimalism, web design, and ideas

On and off from 2000, I kept an offline digital journal using the Psion Database app on EPOC 5 OS, followed by a note-taking app on the Palm Pilot (in combination with a fold-up keyboard). The journal was my personal notepad. I used it to capture ideas and thoughts about my writing and the writing process. My existing blog still does pretty much the same thing (it is also a journal of the films I’m watching).

In 2007 I became interested in publishing my notes to the web. The idea was that — by making them public — it would force me to be more disciplined. Some people like to put their notes in a beautiful leather-bound notebook and write with a nice ink pen or a special pencil made in Germany, I wanted to put my notes in a nicely designed website.

Already, by that stage I was getting fed up with social media and I didn’t want to to use a service like Blogger. I wanted my content in a CMS that I controlled, hosted on my own web space. That was when I discovered Wordpress.

There were other platforms out there but a self-hosted Wordpress site offered the right combination of flexibility customisability — and the CMS was free. What I liked about Wordpress was that it focused on the content creator (the authoring backend was, and probably still is, one of the best out there). It’s a hugely successful platform. Over a third of the web is made up of Wordpress sites. There were some great themes too and people were giving them away for free, directly from their websites.

I’ve had my own websites, hand crafted from HTML, before and since, but they’ve always been a pain to use in practice. A CMS that’s specifically built for blogging makes things a lot faster and easier.

In 2007 the kind of aesthetic refinements that had been around for a long time in magazine design were creeping into web design. This trend has continued as bandwidth has increased and screen sizes have dramatically increased (as well as, paradoxically, grown physically smaller with mobile phones). As the technology has changed, websites have evolved. People learned to scroll, and webpages got longer. Mobile phones became ubiquitous and responsive web design became important.

Images increased in size and then they went smaller. Video seemed like the answer for a while but it followed a similar journey to images. With content and design there is always a balance. What you gain with one thing — you also lose with another. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. These things go in circles, and fashions, chasing ever-changing purposes and ends. As user expectations have increased it has became impossible to envisage websites, especially professional ones, without a defined content strategy. Websites are conversations — they are a way of communicating.

I started out using other people’s Wordpress themes and then I used bare bones themes that had been specifically designed to be customised, themes like Simplest and Blank Slate. There were some solid standbys like Veryplaintxt, and later Information Architects Wordpress Theme 4, which fulfilled my desire for simplicity and a text-based layout. The aspiration was always to bring magazine and book layout qualities — that kind of attention to detail — into web design. Some people like to knit or play Solitaire, I find it relaxing to mess around with CSS and tweak websites.

Over time, people experimented with ways of doing different things to the standard cascading waterfall of news items that’s become synonymous with the blog format. In the wider world blogs with large audiences have been bought up by large media corporations and turned into online magazines. It’s big business, and it has been for some time.

Along the way, Wordpress has also gone from being a fun and lean tool for writing in, to being a powerful but also somewhat bloated platform for personal use. It's no longer as simple as it once was. And that's why I started looking around for alternatives.

Medium felt too much like another version of Blogger but with nicer design. Tumblr had its moment but then Yahoo took it over and... well, the rest is history. Squarespace offers a Wordpress-like experience without the crap of having to deal with or having to host your own website and manage updates and plugins. I used it for a while, but I prefer the control of having my own hosted webspace.

A self-hosted Wordpress installation comes with the hassle of managing the theme layer with a database. Flat file system websites have an inherent advantage in terms of speed and simplicity by not having to query a database. I’m currently using Kirby CMS. It’s an elegant CMS that’s fun to use. There are some great themes available for it. Manu Moreale’s Blog Theme 1 is a good example. And there are a number of themes that provide an easy starting point to customise your own theme.

I enjoy visiting beautifully designed websites. I enjoy simplicity (which isn’t quite the same thing as minimalism, but there’s a clear overlap). There’s also a big overlap between simplicity and a great user experience. I enjoy the focused presentation of book style typographic layouts. And, yes, I still enjoy developing my hazy thoughts into something more focused, by writing blog posts.