Site version #004 launched today. Movable Type on the backend, along with much input from tcc and stg54 on the new skin. My neighbors must think I’m the most unpleasant sonofabitch on the face of the planet. I’ve been working from home now for almost three years, and often the silence of my apartment is bookended by occasional profane explosions directed at a perfectly fine piece of code that just refuses to work. Such is my life as a web developer. Code is among the most elegant and evil of humankind’s inventions, a series of devices designed to enlighten and to obfuscate. Any rookie programmer, no matter the language, has the same experience when they first begin, the horrifying realization that code operates on its own logic, just different enough from what a lifetime of experience with ethnic and national languages has taught us, that the very way a person thinks has to accommodate itself to the demands of the code. In the end, even after becoming comfortable with a new way of thinking, problems usually turn out to be simple syntax error. For those of you unfamiliar with programming, imagine you were stone drunk and had to write a ten page paper due in the morning, and every time you made a typo, your word processing program would call you an idiot and refuse to work. But you’ve got tunnel vision, you can’t see what the error is. Then, in order to get something, anything, done, you search on the web for someone who has written a paper on the same subject as you, and blatantly plagiarize them. And that’s okay! Don’t worry, though. You’ll get better, or you won’t be able to find any work. Welcome to the world of website development.
This relaunch of Missile Test was a long time coming. First launched in 2004, the first iteration of missiletest.com was kept purposefully simple, devoid of automation and any dynamic functionality. That version lasted mere days, just long enough for me to put something together in php after work that would load pages dynamically. And there the backend of the site remained until today. All the entries were hand-coded, and there wasn’t a problem with this, there being only one contributor to the site. If I could write enough in a day to make it hard to find time to post to the site, I think I would have found a way to make a living with words by now.
The front-end has gone through three stylistic changes in its four versions, with five different programmatic methods of presenting the look and feel. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, then you’ve never worked on a website. Even a personal site can be subject to the same absurdities which plague agency projects.
The first skin was embarrassing, with bad typography in the main content area of the site taking most of the blame. The first version of this skin (see how complicated this can get?) had a set of static images at the top underneath a header with some monotype logo in bright blue set within evenly spaced black squares. The next version kept the logo, but the images were preceded by randomized flash video of actual missile test footage before the images would fade in. The images were expanded from the original four, loaded randomly like the video, and were chosen for their relationship to missiles, missile silos, and topical politics. Some were provocative. One image was of an American G.I. pissing on a mural of Saddam Hussein. Another was of men behind barbed wire waving copies of the Koran and shouting. One was the excellent photograph taken by Luis Sinco of a United States Marine, James Blake Miller, in Fallujah, with a Marlboro cigarette nestled in his lips that had become a sensation around the time the site was launched. All of them, images and video, were stolen, pilfered from around the web. The site could have been prettier, but tcc has told me as bad as it looked, the header had a life to it I haven’t recaptured since. I agree. I’d even think about posting that header again somewhere if it weren’t intellectual thievery. The wayback machine doesn’t have it, either. Which is good for me, not bad.
The next skin was almost nonexistent. It was spare, consisting of a simplified logo and type treatment, and only a couple shades of grey. There probably hasn’t been a site on the web that translates so well between all browsers, including smartphones. It was as simple as it could get. The skin was improved slightly to make for more sensible navigation at one point, and remained as it was until today.
The new design takes its cues from two sources. The most influential are old NASA documents from the 1960s, around the time of the Gemini and Apollo programs. Images of the front covers of the docs are readily found online, and the new header in particular is an homage to their look and feel. Incorporating Courier as a font in places is also an homage to the days when documents were typewritten, a look very familiar to me, having grown up in a home with no computer, but with an IBM Selectric typewriter. Courier is no good as a body font on the web, though, so I chose to stick with Lucida Grande for titles and body copy, leaving Courier for sub-links and various footers. The red lines on the borders are something I picked up from stationery, a look that is rapidly fading into the past as quickly as typewritten fonts. As before, the most visually complex area of the site is the header, and is the area where I like to compartmentalize stylistic complexity. The body of the site finds its strength in its words, and is where I continue to find reason to keep things simple, focused more on content than look and feel.
Finally, the second source I took my cues from is tcc’s Daily Exhaust blog, linked at right. He showed me that just because css doesn’t normally allow something, doesn’t mean a hack is not a legitimate means to get your design through, web optimization be damned. Also, his use of background images and thematic terms to invoke a leitmotif to a site is something I’ve carried forward in my site (launches, capcom, mission control, etc.). The more time goes by, the more my site has a stylistic connection with actual missile tests and rocket launches, and while I dread the idea someday that it could be reduced to the level of a theme restaurant, so far on the web it’s permissible behavior which I plan on seeing through until it becomes unbearable. Anyway, enjoy.