Shaun Inman Presents “The Heap”

Inman taps into the web’s inherent ephemeral-ness and uses it as a very creative means of presentation.

It’s easy to make a website that’s dynamic and fluid — all it takes is a little bit of server-side scripting and a couple of database tables. Heck, sign up for a free WordPress account, and all of the hard work is already done for you. All you need to do is log into your admin area and start posting away.

However, how do you take all of the dynamic information and present it in an equally dynamic manner, one that is constantly evolving even as it helps the user make sense of all of that data. How do you take a massive amount of data and present it in ways that actually give those sifting through it a sense of context, importance, timeliness, and purpose without explicitly telling them or beating them over the head with hints?

Shaun Inman has hit on a rather clever method of doing just that with the latest redesign of his site. It’s a little jarring at first, especially compared to the amount of HTML and JavaScript kung fu on display in some of his site’s previous incarnations. Inman has always had a keen eye for layout and typography — after all, it’s not called the “Scalable Inman Flash Replacement” method for nothing — and his attention to detail has always been outstanding.

At first glance, Inman’s new design looks rather, well, blah. It’s all drab greens and dark greys, like it was constructed out of moss and lichen more than anything else. But, as the great big headline implies, it’s not wise to judge on aesthetics alone. Because what Inman has created is something that’s as close to a living, breathing website as I’ve ever seen.

Inman explains the initial concept:

Every post, link and comment on this site is associated with a point in time. As time passes, these items become less relevant. Links to humor suddenly aren’t funny anymore. Articles about site production techniques are inevitably made obsolete by modern practices. There ought to be some way to communicate that visually to the nomadic Googler who wanders across an ancient article on IFR.

The key to Inman’s solution are 33,306 CSS files, one for each day of the next 91 years. The upshot of this insane amount of CSS is that the site’s entire color scheme can now shift and change to reflect the passing days, weeks, months, and years.

This becomes more obvious as you make your way through The Heap. Browse through the various archives and you’ll notice that older posts are paler and more washed out than newer posts, as if they’re literally fading from memory. As Inman puts it:

Each point encapsulates a unique frame of mind. As time passes, that frame of mind and the items associated with it become potentially less relevant and begin to fade. Visibly.

Not only does this provide a clever visual way to connote value and importance — essentially, older posts are more likely to be inaccurate or obsolete, and so become more difficult to read — but it creates a sense of nostalgia as these posts seemingly drift away into the sands of time. Inman has it figured out, and in 90 years, the oldest items on the website will merely be white text on a white background, having completely faded from memory and/or relevance.

I suppose some folks could argue that Inman’s approach undermines the notion that every page (or blog post) on the Web should remain readily and easily available — to show the progression of ideas, to serve as reference points, to avoid linkrot, etc. But Inman isn’t removing the older entries on his site. They still exist. But even if it’s important to have, say, the oldest entries on Inman Flash Replacement or Mint (Inman’s web statistics tool) floating around for sake of reference, they’re not as important as the newer articles. A fact that Inman’s coloring scheme presents in an intriguing manner.

Visually, the site moves away from a multi-column approach to an essentially single column approach. Whereas some sites might differentiate between “real” blog entries and links to interesting articles on other sites, Inman has them all rolled together. It’s sort of like a tumblelog but not as as, well, tumbly. The result is a steady stream of information that is always shifting in front of the user’s eyes, and whose shifting is key to comprehending said information.

It does look like there are a few kinks that Inman’s still working out. He’s still working on the algorithms that figure out the color shading, and so some of the resulting color combinations might be a bit jarring at first. And while Inman has paid just as much attention to type and layout this time around — though there’s nary a hint of IFR to be found — some of the site’s elements seem a little lopsided here and there.

However, those minor points aside, I find the entire concept of Inman’s latest effort quite fascinating. There’s always been something ephemeral about the Web, and with his latest design, Inman taps into that and uses it as a very creative means of presentation. But what’s more, it’s not just a case of interesting, gimmicky techniques for their own sake. The visuals are intimately tied to the information, providing subtle-yet-clever clues that can help the user better comprehend what they’re looking at it — which is always the sign of a good design.

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