As you might have noticed if you’ve visited the site anytime in the past three days, I’ve been messing around with the design a bit. I can’t promise I’m done tinkering yet, but I think I’m almost where I want to be. I had two, basic goals: to provide better navigation among my four personal blogs — Via Negativa, The Morning Porch, Moving Poems, and the occasionally updated Woodrat Photoblog — and to make this blog in particular easier to read and navigate.
The new top navigation bar is my attempt to solve the first problem, though I do worry it may seem a bit grandiose, like I’m trying to set myself up as a one-person blog network. But why not? Think of me as a poetry-obsessed Arianna Huffington or Om Malik, minus all the pesky traffic and employees. And actually I did get the CSS code for the univeral nav bar from another one-man show, WordPress lead developer Mark Jacquith (always steal from the best).
Preliminary results from the stat plugins on each blog do show a slight uptick in cross-site visits, which is what I was looking for. Each of the first three sites has its own fan base, which is great, but it doesn’t hurt to remind people about the other ones. And I do feel that the main navigation menu for any site should be confined to intramural links; mixing on-site and outside links in the same menu strikes me as questionable usability. So it was good to get the Morning Porch and Moving Poems links off of the main menu here, and make room for other stuff.
Of course, some people never notice anything at the top of the screen, but that’s O.K. I still list and describe “My other projects on the web” at the bottom of the sidebar.
Speaking of the sidebar, that’s obviously one of the things I’ve changed in my effort to make Via Negativa more readable. I’ve been very impressed by the theme I’ve been using for The Morning Porch, Ian Stewart’s Kirby theme — especially by how readable the main column is with really big type. Stewart referenced something called The 100% Easy-to-Read Standard, which begins,
Most websites are crammed with small text that’s a pain to read. Why? There is no reason for squeezing so much information onto the screen. It’s just a stupid collective mistake that dates back to a time when screens were really, really small.
I spend a lot of time crafting the stuff I publish here, so I think it’s worth thinking about how and whether people read it. Over at qarrtsiluni, we try to combat the average reader’s tendency to skim material on the web by providing audio for every text post, so people can listen along while they read. That’s too much of a hassle to do here; the weekly podcast is already enough work. But I started thinking of the literary sites I find easiest to read, and generally they are distinguished by large type and lots of white space, just as the above-linked article recommends. Take a look at this typical page from Poetry International Web, for example: Wadih Saadeh’s “Shadows.” Or check out Linebreak, or the big honking type on Necessary Fiction. Pretty enjoyable to read, aren’t they? That’s kind of what I’m trying to duplicate here.
Except for the white space part. I am not willing to give up on the stuff in the sidebar just yet. If readability were my sole concern, I’d do away with sidebars altogether, as I’ve done at my two static online collections of poems, Spoil and Shadow Cabinet (and yes, I’ve increased the font size at both those sites as well). But I have to balance readability with other goals, such as improving access to the voluminous Via Negativa archives, and also linking to other people’s blogs, which is a vital part of the whole blogging enterprise.
Do I really still need two sidebars, though? It might seem as if I could do away with the sidebar version of Smorgasblog and just keep it on its own page, but if I did that, it wouldn’t get nearly as many readers, and the people I link to wouldn’t get much of a boost in Google or in Technorati, as I understand it. The only real option I think would be to do away with it as a semi-separate blog and integrate link posts with main-column material, possibly distinguished by some special styling, à la Tumblr. (I could still filter them out of the main RSS feed, so as not to annoy subscribers by sending too many posts their way.)
I am still thinking about this — any feedback would be appreciated. Obviously with just one sidebar, I could have lots more white space. On the other hand, I don’t think my current strategy works all that badly: putting sidebar material in a lightly colored box and a different font does seem to set off the main content pretty well, though I may not be the best judge of that.
I am also thinking a width of 520 pixels seems a little cramped for 16-pixel type. (One alteration later — see comments — the main column is 540 pixels wide, and looking a bit less cramped, maybe.)
By the way, if you’re the kind of person who likes to nose around in stylesheets, be prepared for a bit of a shock when you look at mine. It’s a mare’s nest. When WordPress adopted the slogan, “Code is Poetry,” I don’t think this is what they had on mind. On the other hand, since I know so little about the fundamentals of CSS (and even less about PHP, the main language WordPress is written in), playing around with the design and functionality of one of my blog sites reminds me very much of trying to write a poem: I am rarely sure what will happen when I try something new, and nine tenths of what I try never makes it out of draft. In short, it’s an adventure.