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Arcadian Spaces 2.0

Arcadian Spaces 2.0

Mar 11, 2013  ◦  Joseph Daily

Arcadianspaces.com first launched in October of 2011, and at the time, it was a bit of a race to go live within the short window that had opened up in our schedule. Back then, all that we posted was a static website showcasing our core projects, with the intention of incorporating a content management system as soon as time allowed – so that we could add a blog, post new project entries, and generally give ourselves room to grow.

But it took a good while longer than I expected for another window to open up! So now, almost a year and a half later, I have been sitting with our website for long enough that I couldn’t delve into the back end without simultaneously reconsidering our front end presentation. Here are some notes on how it all came together.

Meet me at the Green Dragon

Our original site design was based on our flagship project – the Dragon Pagoda – and specifically the profile view that I had subsequently painted and used as a background for my Twitter profile. But as I built out the site, this fade-to-black theme seemed a little dark for what we were trying to convey with our work. In the end, we flattened the dragon onto a two-toned, green linen texture:

My Twitter background

Arcadianspaces.com, Version 1

I was and still am proud of this design, but I often wondered if we weren’t leaning too heavily on the dragon for visual effect. Its asian character suited that particular project but isn’t necessarily representative of our style as a whole. The richness of the green linen texture also struck me as a bit heavy, competing somewhat with the images and text throughout the website. I would occasionally toy with the idea of reworking our design against a white background, to make our words more legible and let our photographs speak for themselves.

Emblematic Design

All of these thoughts were just background chatter until John asked me to design an emblem that we could have laser-cut from stainless steel – a sort of plaque to adorn our custom structures. The resulting logo felt clean, elegant, and appropriately neutral, and it soon became the basis for our new masthead. Everything else unfolded from there.

Colors aside, we mostly retained the basic layout of our original site, although I tweaked and fine-tuned minor elements throughout. Arcadianspaces.com v1 was also my first attempt at a responsive design, and I’ve been able to refine this practice while reworking our site. There is something particularly satisfying about tailoring your presentation across various browser sizes and then watching the content reflow accordingly.

Design for a stainless steel plaque

Arcadianspaces.com, Version 2

On an iPad

On an iPhone

The Content Conundrum

The visual design aspects of web publishing are the parts that I most enjoy, but having gotten this far, I had to decide on a CMS. This is a step which I always dread.

My problem with content “management” systems is that they use programming languages I don’t understand to chop up my sites into little chunks that get shufled away into various hard-to-reach locations, usually involving a database and an intricate network of folders on the host server. And then one is forced to orchestrate everything via an online control panel full of menus and WYSIWYG editors, so that the process of creating and editing content (blog posts, portfolio entries, etc.) has little in common with the process of building a small website in the first place. So what were my options?

  1. Over the past few years there have emerged a whole host of new “lightweight” CMSs which aim to remedy the above … but for me, the process of investigating them and trying to wrap my head around how they work seems as time consuming as just moving forward with whatever I’m already familiar with.
  2. Despite everything, I have had good experiences with ExpressionEngine, but installing and maintaining it would be overkill in this case.
  3. And then there’s Squarespace, which sure seems to be gaining a lot of traction lately. I just moved Maria’s site over to Squarespace, and I could easily see it becoming the future of personal and small site web publishing. But it feels too much like building a site along predefined rails (at least straight out of the box), and everything is tied together via a web interface that just doesn’t suit me.
  4. On the other end of the spectrum, I keep hearing great things about flat-file systems like Jekyll, but I’m afraid Rails and Git-hub are beyond me at the moment.
  5. This left me, I assumed, with good old Wordpress; which half the web is built on; which I am at least relatively familiar with (my own website runs on Wordpress); which is free to download; and which I sort of despise.

Enter Kirby CMS:

kirbylogo
No database, just files and folders getkirby.com

I am so grateful that I stumbled across this little CMS (hat tip to Jessica Hische), which uses a minimum of PHP to knit together a simple collection of files and folders into a dynamic website. New content is created in Markdown using post-specific text files, images, and assests, which all live within the same file structure as your templates, snippets, and global assets. And maintaining a local clone of your website is so completely painless that I will finally do so for the first time in my life, instead of just abandoning local development once the production site goes live.

Templating with Kirby requires some basic familiarity with PHP, but novices like myself will do just fine by cutting and pasting from the default themes and online docs. Anyone capable of theming their own Wordpress site will be more than capable of making something special with Kirby.

Now I can’t wait to rebuild my personal website with Kirby, as soon as I can find make time. Update: I did it.

I should mention that I discovered Kirby in conjunction with Statamic, another database-free, PHP-based CMS. Statamic looks pretty nice, but as I didn’t have time to test-drive both systems, Kirby won me over with the developer’s friendly tone, his excellent docs and tutorials, and a very reasonable price point (Kirby is free to download & play with, and it costs only $39 when you are ready to go live).

Onward and Upward

When burying one’s head in code for days (and nights) on end, it can be easy to lose sight of the point of it all: to share our work, experiences, our thoughts via our own little corner of the world wide web. So here we are.

I’m hopeful that Kirby has made the content creation process smooth enough that we will actually folow through … and I promise that our posts won’t always be so meta.

Onwards and Upwards

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