Catching My Eye

Here are a few websites that have recently popped up on my radar.

Most days, I feel very blessed to be a web designer (or developer, whatever the heck folks like me are called). Granted, there are those days, days where projects can’t quite come together, clients become too needy and demanding, and I find myself wanting to do very bad things to the folks responsible for a certain web browser.

But most of the time, I love my field. I love the way it challenges both sides of my brain, the design aspect allowing me to indulge my inner artiste and the programming aspect appealing to my inner geek. I love how there’s always something new to learn, some new tool, method, or technique to explore, figure out, and add to the toolbox. I love the fact that all of this can come together in a way that, if the stars align and everyone does their job right, the result is something that can actually make life better in some small way.

And I love the fact that there’s a never-ending stream of inspiration. Everyday it seems like I find some website whose design, implementation, and/​or functionality challenges my own skills, exposes to me a new way of doing things, or just simply catches my eye.

And given the open nature of the Web, I can oftentimes find the thoughts and views of the designers themselves, read their explanations and inspirations, and learn from them (or at least understand that we all share the same frustrations). And if nothing else, I can always view their HTML source and figure out just how in the heck they made something so cool. Here are a few websites that have recently popped up on my radar.

The University of Tennessee

My first web design-related job was working for a university, and so I have a bit of an understanding of what Darren Hughes must have surely gone through in the course of producing the new design for the University of Tennessee’s website.

In a sense, a university website isn’t just a single website. Given the wide range of endeavors, activities, and interests that make up your typical university, it’s certainly a Herculean task to come up with something that addresses them all — and survives the bureaucracy — while still looking good and functioning well. That being said, I think Hughes and his co-workers did a remarkable job.

The new site is very clean, makes the best use of a fairly limited color palette, and has a very clear and well-thought out navigational scheme. Hughes explains a lot of the decisions that went into creating the new design, so I won’t touch on them here. But the result is good, solid site. And now comes the real challenge: getting the rest of the university’s myriad departments onboard.

Happy Cog

There are a handful of folks who are truly the equivalent of rock stars in the web design world, and Jeffrey Zeldman is at the top of that list. Zeldman has been instrumental in the growing adoption of web standards, both through his work on such sites as A List Apart and his book, Designing With Web Standards.

That being said, I’ve never cared too much for the site design of Happy Cog, Zeldman’s design firm. They were alright, but just that… alright. But this new design is something else.

Just looking at it, it doesn’t seem like anything too special. Sure, it looks really nice, with pleasant colors, interesting imagery, and effective icons. However, what really gets me about this design is not how it looks, but how it’s put together.

You see, most designers (myself included), probably start a new design by firing up Photoshop and seeing what they come up with. Or maybe they start sketching something out with paper and pen. Whatever the case, they’re often starting visually, pushing around a bunch of shapes, boxes, and colors until something clicks. However, Happy Cog’s design is all based around a single sentence.

Zeldman explains it well in this blog entry. I find it rather fascinating that the entire design was based around a sentence, that the design was written before it was actually designed, and that the navigation communicates as much as it helps people find their way around the site. It’s such a different approach than I how I typically think of websites, and it makes for a more holistic, natural, content-centric approach that I find as refreshing as I do challenging.

SimpleLog

Okay, so this one isn’t really about a website per se. SimpleLog is a super-lean weblogging application created by Garrett ​“Maniacal Rage” Murray. Although I don’t use it myself, I’ve been fascinated by it ever since Murray announced it back in May of 2006 and have kept close eyes on it throughout its development.

In fact, when I was working on a new version of Opus’ CMS before switching to ExpressionEngine, the system that I was developing was very much influenced by SimpleLog’s Zen-like approach. Of course, that simple approach ultimately didn’t work out to be what I needed and so I went with EE. Even so, I still find it intriguing and refreshing.

Murray has posted a bunch of screenshots of SimpleLog’s administration area, and it’s a thing of greyscale beauty.

There’s a somewhat obvious Aqua influence to the interface, but Murray pulls it off well. The screens are all laid out tastefully, with minimal clutter, which I surmise would allow the blogger to focus on the most important thing — getting their content published for others to read.

As much as I like EE, it is very easy to get bogged down in all of the options, configurations, and whatnot. So much so, that it can be daunting to even log into the admin area. I imagine that’s less of an issue with SimpleLog due to Murray’s obviously focused approach.