Change

Change can be exciting, but also a source of great anxiety. Currently I am feeling both excited and anxious about the new theme design here… and not surprisingly, I already miss the old one. Modern was a terrific design — one of a relatively small number of what I consider great WordPress themes, at least as far as aesthetics are concerned. But the code was lacking in other ways, and I was having real trouble getting the sidebar to display properly in Internet Explorer, among other things.

I make no great claims for the current design, much of which is my own work, and incorporates some styles from the old theme (go here to see what it’s supposed to look like). I’ve wanted a double right sidebar for a while; I think it helps usability to make a clear distinction between internal and external links. I also wanted to include links to recent comments (on the home page only) and links to recent posts, useful since I’ve cut down the number of posts shown on the home page (and always a good thing for visitors coming in on links to archival posts). The longer navigation bar in the header has room for a few more things that didn’t really belong in the sidebar. I think the blog is still narrow enough to display without a scroll bar at most standard resolutions (mobile phones should pick up a much more minimal theme).

So if you’re reading this via feed reader or email, click through and let me know what you think. I’ve checked it out to one degree or another in Firefox, IE7, Opera, and Safari for Windows, and it looks pretty much the same in all of them. Now to bed.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

42 Comments


  1. Safari/Mac is having a problem with your prev/next post links:

    div.bottom_nav {width:100%} sorted it out for me, and I don’t think it’ll cause any other problems.

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  2. Dave, I like the new design very much! The text column is a nice width. The light green header is just right with the dark strip, and most appropriate to your interests, of course. And all the different kinds of links seem very clear and accessible. Nice

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  3. Nice! This format manages to pack in a lot of links & other material without seeming cluttered. The main text block still seems spacious & easy to read, and the top navigation bar makes it easy to go from here to there.

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  4. The layout in general looks good, but those blocky all-caps post titles are a bit rough on the eyes.

    Also, I would gently suggest darkening the green title just a bit, toward an olive that would better hue-match the darker panels on the rest of the page.

    Waitasec — I had muttered about “comment preview would be nice”, but you know, editing is even better! Wheee!

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  5. I like the look– crisp and clear. (I generally use IE.)

    I know this is old-fashioned of me, but the page is not completely scalable, that is, the double-column sidebar will cut off if someone uses a smaller window or (perish the thought) only has an 800 px screen width. My pref is always to avoid horizontal scrolling. Otherwise, looking good!

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  6. I miss the old one, too. This has clarity, very true, but seems a little austere. The boxed quotes in the (absolutely lovely) posts below are a little light, or too screened for my eyes’ tastes, and a tad hard for me to read.

    Things are well organized.

    I do notice 5 or 6 typestyles (my impressions) in close quarters and little color.

    Those are my first-impressions.

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  7. I do usually read on Bloglines, but this layout does definitely make a good distinction between internal and external links. Looks good!

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  8. Harry – Thanks for the tip! That was my first priority to work on this morning; I noticed it just after I published this post last night.

    Jean – I’m very glad you liked it. I was a little worried that fans of minimalism like yourself would find the double sidebar a bit much.

    Lorianne – Swell; that’s what I was aiming for. The impression of spaciousness is interesting, since the Modern theme made a fetish of whitespace, which this does not. But the main difference here is the increase in main column width from 425px to 500px. So it feels a bit less cramped, maybe.

    David – Well, I haven’t tried swapping in the title styles from the old theme yet, so maybe I’ll play around with that today. (Thanks to a new plugin, I can actually edit the theme without anyone but me seeing the changes – a great alternative for those of us not geeky enough to figure out how to set up a local installation of our blogs!) As for the title color, I really like that shade of green, so I can’t promise it will change at all, but I will play around with it some more. The idea is not only to inject a spot of color and brightness, but also to neutralize the casual visitor’s negative response to “negativa.”

    There is a plugin that would give a preview as well as editing ability, but I don’t think that’s necessary, and I want to avoid javascript/AJAX in comments.

    Sally – Good to hear from an unrepentent IE user. (That would include my mom, too, I’m ashamed to admit.) Not very many folks still use the 800px width, but for those who do, they’ll just miss part of the right sidebar and the fun-but-inessential Browse and Random Post links. I think a horizontal scrollbar is far preferable to a flexible-width main column, which would play havoc with images and the way text flows around them. I thought about making the main column narrower, but in that case the content on the right might prove too much of a distraction.

    …deb – Thanks for the review. There are four styles of type, counting the header, but with the link style set to heavy/dark, it looks like more. I could always change that (and it could be different in the main column from the sidebar); my preference is for the least obtrusive link styling.

    By “boxed quotes,” you mean the blockquote? I’m definitely not wedded to that style. Actually, I’ve always thought that blog theme designers’ obsession with fancy blockquote styles is a little silly.

    Rurality – Thanks for checking it out. Late last night it occurred to me to wonder whether there are any blogs out there which are intentionally only available via RSS, with nothing but a Subscribe link showing on the main page. That would be an interesting way to give the finger to search engines!

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  9. I’m with deb. The warmth of the old one is missing here. More distant, less inviting than the former I’m sorry to say.

    I’m on a Mac with Safari, but I’m not having the problems Harry is.

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  10. I think David is right about the heavy caps post titles, but not about darkening the heading – that little lightness really lifts the page.

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  11. Allan – You’re not seeing it because I just fixed the problem (which affected Opera also) as per Harry’s suggestion.

    Less inviting, eh? Goddamn. Maybe I should put my smiling photo up top, as my friend Miguel does. Or some other graphic right at the top of the sidebar. I’m just not a fan of big headers, although I know the right header image can really give a positive first impression.

    Jean – O.K., give me a few minutes on that h2 styling…
    [10 min. later] Any better now?

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  12. NIce, but I miss having a little artwork on the header. To my taste this is looking a wee too business-like for a poetry and nature blog. I like the double side-bar for all your numerous features. Great work, Dave!

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  13. marja-leena – Thanks for the review. You might be right about the need for a graphic or image of some kind. If only I knew some artists…

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  14. Wow. This is a big change.

    I like the organization. It’s easy to navigate and find things.

    The layout is very clean and uncluttered.

    The type in the righthand side column seems a tad small. No, I don’t have trouble with my vision (yet); it’s just a question of wading through lots of tiny text being a little tiring to the eye.

    I miss color in a big way! To my eye, it’s a bit severe at the moment. You might consider adding a third color to your scheme (to the shades of green and black). Alternatively, you could repeat the green, for instance in the post and sidebar headers — but you’d want to make sure that “via negativa” still stood out as primary. I also miss the graphic at the top.

    I imagine this will look a little different once your posts with photos start appearing again, but generally speaking a page broken up with images of some sort is easier to scan. Eye tracking studies of web pages show over and over that the eye is drawn to the visual over the words. That refers to images, but can include “graphical” text (i.e., large or colorful or unusually designed).

    And I’m with the others on the all-cap headers. For one word, like “CHANGE,” it works. But when you get to “CUTTING A HATCHET,” it begins to seem, well, a bit much.

    Impressive work, Dave. (And yeah, you do know some artists! Work those internet connections!)

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  15. MB – Thanks for that very thorough review! You make a lot of good points. I was just comparing the way the sidebar font appear in the various browsers: very sharp and light-weight in Opera, almost as good in Firefox, a little muddy and hard to read in IE, and worst of all in Safari (which I have adjusted for optimal display on my kind of monitor). Arial/Helvetica is supposed to be the most legible font at a small size, so I may not have too many options other than increasing the size (which is obviously problematic given the narrow width of the columns). I’ll play around with it, though. Thanks for mentioning that.

    [Update, 15 min. later] O.K., I upped the size a tenth of an em (and also moved the right sidebar in from the edge). To my eye, the sidebar is a bit more legible now in the problematic browsers.

    Your points about color and graphics are very well taken, too. As for the all-cap titles, I don’t know… I think there’s a good chance I’ll keep them. Years ago, when I was still quite paper-oriented, I used to type my poems with all-cap titles, so I think I imprinted on that style.

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  16. It’s an interesting change, dave. Maybe I’m overly attached to the older format, but this one doesn’t seem like you yet. It’s not as warm or inviting. It does have more of a business feel. It may just take a while to get used to. I’ll give it some time. You are very brave for making such a sweeping change, like a radical new haircut or something.

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  17. Dave: I love the organization, but like others wish you’d soften it with an image, one of your many fantastic photos would work.

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  18. Well, you can probably imagine what I’d say…like Robin, I admire the experimentation but miss the warmth and personality of the old look. I’m not a fan of two-column sidebars; no matter what, they look cluttered to me, and as such aren’t inviting. On the other hand, you NEED some way to feature and better organize all those links. I wonder how many people really follow the featured posts (second column) – do you have any way of knowing? I like the page listings at the top and think these will be more versatile than the old ones; I like the colors, and the bold caps don’t bother me at all. Before you try a photo header, please put some photos in the main column – what a lot of us are reacting to, I think, is the preponderance of text on the page.

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  19. robin andrea – You may be right about the business feel – after all these comments, I’m beginning to see it that way, too. Funny you should mention new haircuts, though. I’ve been feeling a strong urge lately to get rid of my ponytail and go back to being a short-hair.

    Pica – I don’t know about a photo; I was thinking a sketch. I’ll see what I can come up with.

    Beth – I don’t know how many people follow the links. But i think it’s vitally important for bloggers to link to each other, and a separate links page just doesn’t cut it for me: too few people would ever visit it, and the blogs and websites linked to from a page other than the home page get little benefit in terms of search engine ranking. (Plus, with a dynamically generated blogroll, you never have to worry about links to dead blogs!) You’re right about photos ameliorating the severe effect, I’m sure, but I want the freedom to publish pure-text posts, too. So I’ll see if I can find some kind of graphic for the header.

    Thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to comment so far.

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  20. “Arial/Helvetica is supposed to be the most legible font at a small size”

    I’m not sure that’s true, actually. Helvetica is a great typeface designed for printing; on-screen, you might do better with Verdana or Lucida Sans.

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  21. Oh yeah? Well, there’s one way to find out…

    [Update] Nope, too wide, even at a tenth of an em smaller. I can see what you mean, though: both fonts are definitely a bit more legible.

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  22. It’s easy to read, easy to navigate, and it “degrades gracefully.” (I sometimes use text-only browsers like Lynx.) On my new Mac, with Safari and Firefox, it looks good, but for some reason it looks even better with Ice Weasel on the Linux box. (Ice Weasel is a Debian-compatible Firefox port.)

    A minor quibble–when I’m looking for hypertext, I don’t usually expect it to be bold and black. I usually interpret that as emphasis, rather than a link. A new visitor might not recognize your hyperlinks.

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  23. I liked the old one better. It was more aesthetic. This seems corporate.

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  24. Rebecca – Good point. Trouble is, I’m not terribly fond of the alternatives, underlining and using different colors. Maybe I can just unbold it and the darker color will be enough.
    [Update] O.K., I replaced the bold font-weight with a dotted underline for links within posts. I think that will avoid any confusion with bolding for emphasis, without a distracting proliferation of underlines all over the page.

    Ice Weasel is a Debian-compatible Firefox port.

    I’m not even gonna pretend I know what that means. But it’s an intriguing phrase! Glad to hear of the graceful degradation — something we all should wish for, I suppose.

    Jennifer – Ouch, that’s harsh! Thanks for weighing in, though.

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  25. Will take some getting used to the different feel, but I like it!

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  26. Thanks! Hey, you’re able to read all the way down and leave a comment now, eh? (That was one of the things that made me think the old theme was getting creaky.)

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  27. I like everything about this. I’m a firm believer in using as much of a browser’s width as possible while still giving the eye enough white space to relax in. I love how your sidebar goes from one to two columns as the eye goes down. I also really like the masthead. You’ve kept VN’s title font, which looks so good uncapitalized. I like the organization and ease of use at the top. I like what you’ve chosen to put in the black bar in the masthead. I really, really like, and am quite covetous of, the browse feature. That’s the smartest way I’ve seen a blog present a number of categories. I like the internal links and external links in separate columns. I’ll have to get used to the smaller post body font, but I’m glad it (appears to be) the same font.

    I think the overall look is somehow warmer than your last one, previous comments to the contrary. Your old one wasn’t forbidding, but I think this combination of eye-pleasing layout and improved features and choices make this far more inviting than your old site.

    (I’m using Safari/Mac, and I’m not having the problem with the previous/next post links.)

    I’m sure this was a pain to put together, but I know (at least I think I know; I’ve looked at a lot of WordPress skins) that you can’t get something this good off the rack. Congratulations! I love it.

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  28. Hmm. It does have a tendency, IMHO, to look a little stark and business-like. Just one image, one leeeetle image? somewhere? You have so many to choose from… maybe a changing image link to visual soma in the sidebar? Obviously I’m rather image-dependent but if I arrived here cold I would have no sense of the multiplicity of your interests. I know they’re all written out there at the top in text, but that doesn’t float my attentional boat. And the rss buttons look huge!

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  29. And of course I love the drop-down “browse” menu button… but it repeats the function of the “categories” section in the sidebar but without the hierarchical structure.

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  30. I also wonder about having a comment link at both the top and the bottom of a post. Makes the top, with its very large title and tiny date, look rather busy and heavy. Is there a specific reason to have the link in both places?

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  31. I think a sketch or b/w photo (or one of your stripped out photos, b/w with just a bit of colour) above the black strip, instead of the quote, would probably work well. I do take many readers’ points about the lack of images and agree with Beth that at first sight this in no way indicates the nature or range of your interests (what about putting ‘photo-blog’ on the tab at the top instead of Visual Soma, for example?). Also agree with rr that the subscribe buttons are big and ugly. If you made those smaller, you could fit an extra line or two of personal info above, perhaps?…

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  32. More good feedback! Thanks Peter, rr, and Jean. Interesting to see the difference of opinion on the “Browse” drop-down categories menu (which I can’t take credit for; it came with the theme). It is superfluous, designed to tempt new visitors into exploration, like the Random button next to it.

    I am seriously thinking about an image (probably small and b&w). I’m not ready to promise anything, but that’s one of the things on my to-do list for today.

    [Update, 2 hours later] O.K., enter Bear. (If anyone has a better idea of an image to represent the apophatic way, feel free to share.)

    rr, I’m coming to the same conclusion about the top comment link. So with you echoing my own reaction, I think I’ll take it out.

    Jean, that’s an excellent suggestion to replace “Visual Soma” with “photo blog.” Yes. The RSS buttons were designed for qarrtsiluni, so I should probably design different ones in any case. I am going to add an extra sentence to the “Welcome” statement, I think.

    The trouble with this kind of comment thread, of course, is that people who stop by after I’ve made the changes suggested here will wonder what the hell you’re talking about!

    Oh, one other thing I need help making up my mind on is whether to include my own comments in the Recent Comments link? And if not (which is the current setting), should I retitle it “Recent Visitors”? There really isn’t room for more than seven at a time, so leaving my own comments out makes more room for other voices.

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  33. Can I say I’m not too keen? I was a huge fan of the old one too, and I felt bereft when I turned up and saw this…it is clinical and hard to read, text seems bunched somehow. Aren’t I awful, you go to all this trouble and I bitch and moan. Sorry.

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  34. “Bunched”? Sounds like you either need a new browser, or need to adjust the settings on the one you have. Because the text is the same font and just about the same size as on the old theme. You’re allowed not to like it, though, of course. :)

    Look at it this way: by no longer using it myself, I’ve made the “Modern” theme all the more distinctly theirs for those few, discerning bloggers who do use it. Which could include you, if you ever decide to go self-hosted with Florescence.

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  35. I have to agree with some about the lack of hominess – feels a bit sterile. Most troubling to my eye is the heaviness on the right hand side of the page. My eye was drawn away from the entry on the left to the double columns and blocky text on the right. It’s something of a distraction. Your writing really deserves center stage.

    Comment previews have always seemed superfluous to me. If a piece of writing moves me one way or another I will inevitably read the comments.

    Tangentially, I miss the smorgasblog feature. To my mind, it was a more effective means of calling attention to posts from other bloggers. Having a snippet of writing is often a more compelling and practical lure than random titles from a rolling bloglist, I think.

    My two cents. Otherwise, thank you for providing reliably interesting content. It’s always a pleasure to read here.

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  36. Hi anon – Thanks for the feedback. In defense of the recent comments links, they do serve to alert readers other than me to the existence of comments in old posts; unlike a lot of bloggers, I keep comments open indefinitely because you never know what will come in.

    Sorry to hear you feel the sidebar stuff is a distraction. I’ve heard that from some others, too. I’ll work on ways to mitigate that, but I also suspect that it will seem a little less distracting once you get used to the new design.

    Smorgasblog was great and I enjoyed doing it. I stopped because it took up too much of my time; I think qarrtsiluni is a better use of my energies. I can’t do both and still have time for my own writing.

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  37. I like the bear! That does give it some personality. The sidebars are good, too. I agree that they’re more likely to be used when they’re so accessible, as opposed to on another page or when they scroll down one column too far. Not sure about the color. But you can always tweak that at some point (presuming it’s relatively easy to change color coding).

    Maybe you could consider some border on the left side, so the text isn’t trailing off into whiteness?

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  38. Hi Leslee – Glad you liked the bear! It may or may not be a long-term resident up there. As for the sidebar, I’ve changed the link font style to resemble what the old theme had (differentiation by size rather than boldness), and I suppose in time I’ll decide to darken the background color to resemble Modern, too! I like this pale green myself, but I think it strikes a lot of other people as generic or corporate – reactions to colors can be very visceral. something darker might well help to minimize the distraction issue some people are having, too. I’ll keep thinking about it.

    You’re the first to mention a discomfort with the unbordered left margin. I’m having a hard time empathizing with that one.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your reactions.

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  39. No, you’re right. It’s not the whiteness on the left side of the text. I think it’s just a bit unbalanced on the banner – the black bear on the right isn’t balanced strongly enough on the left, so the “via negativa,” which is lower and less bold, seems to slide off. Something needs to balance in the banner, though it doesn’t have to be the title.

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  40. Oh, O.K. — thanks for clarifying your critique. Hmmm.

    I must say I’m very pleased with all the concrete criticisms and suggestions for change here, many of which I’ve already implemented. Based on this, I’d strongly encourage other bloggers to solicit criticism when working through a redesign of their site.

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  41. I think it’s because there is so much of it across the page now, newspaperish. I appreciate the font hasn’t changed, there’s just more of it. And thanks for not minding my minding :) Have a good weekend, in a week or two I will have adjusted.

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  42. I like all the tweaking you’ve done since I was here last. Much more readible text. Good blend of bolds, italics, sizes – without looking cluttered. The links seems to look right. I Like the bear. The shading helps my eye wander more easily. Not that I have a wandering or lazy eye.

    PS – I have been loving your implement-theme poems.

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