Thursday, October 28, 2010

Evolution of a website; 4th design in 10 years—What do you think?

I first bought my name back in 1999, I believe. It was DavidCullen.com back then because some early Dave adopter grabbed the version of our name I wanted before it occurred to me.

Today: Oct 2010
Today, I submit my fourth all-new look from the course of that decade. I created it myself, again. What do you think?

It's at DaveCullen.com, where I've been most of that time, because the other Dave never got around to using it, and I nabbed it quickly when it expired.

I don't think the automated "back-ordering" method had been invented yet. I just checked WhoIs for the expiration date, and kept trying. One day, it worked. I hope to squat there for life.

It took me months to get something up there the first time. How to build a website was puzzling, but the uploading was worse.

Initially, I just grabbed the name because someone else would. I had one shot for life. (Possibly well beyond my life, actually, if my books stay in print, and my "heirs" look after my online home. Someone will slip up. I wonder how long it will last?)

For a few years, I held onto davidtcullen.com too, just in case. That seemed excessive, but who knew what lay ahead? I was hedging all bets.



1999-2004
I dug around my hard drive for old versions and the earliest I could find is from 2004. That's five years in, but I'm pretty sure it was a modest variation of the original design, with the green powerpointish background.


That cheesy thing started with a template, sort of. It was just the page my hosting company provided for parked domains with a website coming logo. I just copied the code and slapped my title and text on top of theirs. Pretty soon, I got antsy. I was mucking about with it fast.

I did that by examining the code and experimenting with changes to it to figure out what caused what. That led to a lot of corrupted code over the years. Haha. Most of my attempts failed, because I had no idea how html operated.
 
I thought the page looked sharp for the 90s, but the web was taking off then and design changed fast.
It was a slog, because I never foresaw the importance of this whole html thing, or admitted how much I'd be screwing around with it the next decade.

I couldn't do a whole lot to it either, because I was limited to the html commands in the original template, which was quite simple. I didn't know what other codes existed, and Google had not yet been invented. (I don't think. It was all Yahoo then. I also had no idea you could view the source code on any page on your screen. That came years later.)

But I sure was churning out pages. Around 2001—a year after signing my first deal with Random House to write Columbine as an ebook—I decided to share the mountain of research I gathered. I started posting it online. I never stopped.

I thought there was a lot of evidence in the beginning, but the flow had barely started. Today, my site has killers' journals, pictures, diagrams of the attack, crime scene photos, all the official reports, a guide through the evidence, etc. Everything imaginable on Columbine—because only 30,000-plus pages of documents have been released.

I realized pretty early that I had to name these things, so I called it The Columbine Almanac—a name I always hated. Sounds like the Amish site on the tragedy or something. But the name held until at least 2004, when Slate linked to it on the big piece I posted for them, The Depressive & The Psychopath. Six years later, that story still hangs out in the Google top ten for Columbine searches, directing thousands of people to the wrong page, with the wrong name. It's a constant reminder to me to how important it is to get the name right the first time, and the address.

(I've since renamed it three times. It's now called Columbine Online, midway through its own make-over and a relocation to columbine-online.com. Hopefully I can use that naming convention for the companion sites to all my future books, and later readers will find my stuff more easily.)

My big design break came in the summer of 2002. I started my first blog. I had been toying with the idea for awhile, but there was nothing simple like the current Blogger or Wordpress, though some platforms were starting to emerge.

Then the web visionary Scott Rosenberg started the Salon Blogs project. They offered the software and hosting and modest support all at their site for something like $50 a year. Why not?

I started the first week or two they offered it. They assigned you a numerical address back then, and I think I was #37 (or possibly 137), though they used several of the smaller numbers for testing.

(My actual address is/was http://blogs.salon.com/0001137/ It's still there, but with a much later design. I believe they started with #0001100, and used the first dozen or so for testing.) Julie Powell was also part of that first group, just slightly later, with The Julie/Julia Project that turned into a really interesting site, a bestselling book and an awful movie. It looks like she was was their 299th blog, starting August 25, 2002.

The Salon template was packed with codes, and I screwed up all of them. Haha. I learned to do a lot, though I was often baffled by why a change worked. I managed to make that green Howard Dean page up there work in time for his presidential run in 2003.

(I got on board his train fairly early, too, in May 2003. I started that "Dean News Clearinghouse" at the end of June 2003, and it became a pretty big grassroots site in his campaign. Around midnight every night, I would search GoogleNews—this new service from this newish company I should have bought stock in (except that it wasn't public yet)—and update a static page on my blog with the headlines and the first line or two of copy.

I did that nearly every night for about nine months, until sometime after the Iowa caucuses, when the campaign suddenly tanked. (I went to Des Moines for the caucuses, and was in the room about 20 feet away when he made the famous squeal that ruined him, BTW. I never heard it over the crowd roar.)

Pretty soon the Dean page got huge and I had to create a network of summary pages and "recent stories" and "top stories" sorts of pages. That's the cover page shown. The Dean people featured it as one of the lead sites on the campaign homepage, all the way up until the end.

I had huge web traffic for those days, and that turned out to be my first inadvertent experiment in creating a web draw. (Originally, I was just trying to do something useful for the little group of zealots like me around the country. We were in a chat room saying something like, "You know what we really need is . . ." and I said, "OK, I'll do that.")

2005-2008 (approx)
(Yes, that's me in the hole on the right. I dug it, too.)
I tweaked my overall site design endlessly, until I think 2005, when I did my first complete redesign, six years in:

It's much cleaner, with my first attempt at a menu bar, self-coded and very rudimentary.

I've already got "Columbine" as one of the main menu items, in anticipation of the book I was supposed to be wrapping up, and originally scheduled for a late 2006 or early 2007 release. (It came out April 2009. Whoops.)

Some of the categories may seem odd, but they reflect my online focus at that time.

Brokeback is a category, because in the fall of 2005, I had started a page on my blog about it in anticipation of the film, and it turned into this massive thing with a life of its own, The Ultimate Brokeback Forum. We've had over a million posts, and it's still going, five years later.

That was definitely the coolest thing I ever did online.

Brokeback Forum—a spin-off site
"Pix" was also still a main menu category. (When I first started that's all I could come up with to post about myself.) It's a picture page you're seeing above. (It's all I could dig up.)
 
I have still not broken down to take an html class. That was dumb. I have an undergrad degree in Math & Computer Science, so I get the gist of programming, but html is one crappy language. At least the original version with all those horrible TD and TR tables is. I felt way too invested to switch over to the Div version until this redesign. It was kind of a bitch, but it's almost done.

I really went about it the hard (dumb) way, too. For the past several years, I've had about 50 pages on the site, most of them hand-coded in cuteftp, where I actually typed in the code strings for each change or addition, loaded the page to look at it, and tried again. (With lots of google searches over time to learn how html commands I'd been using for years really operated. Doh!)

2008-2010
Design #3, came in 2008, I believe, in anticipation of my book release the following spring.

This to the right is a recent version of it, from a week ago. (I really should have been keeping these things.) It's changed a bit over the two years. The book picture wasn't in the first version, because it had not been created yet. And the bad blue in the logo was much worse, more like:

By this point, the page is looking really cluttered again, but the truth is that I actually simplified everything during the this redesign. The clutter build-up had been gradual over the previous three years, and I finally rethought it all and scaled back in 2008. Not enough.

Until then, I actually had two Columbine categories on the menu bar: the lesser one for the eventual book I was sure would exist some day, and the primary one for what would eventually be Columbine Online.

For that design project, I finally invested in software, Microsoft's Expression. It was a zillion times easier, though clunkier than it ought to be. But then I lost the program when a PC died, and forgot how it worked, and went back to hand-coding for years.

Two years later, last month, I admitted this web thing might be with us for awhile. And I might not get over my addiction to it. So I shelled out $400 for the most basic version of DreamWeaver, from Adobe.

Wow. Another product that puts Microsoft to shame. What a surprise.

DreamWeaver is not the most user-friendly thing to plunge into, though for once I forced myself to watch a few intro videos. What a difference those made. I still got antsy five minutes in, though, and started plunging in to experiment with the frags I'd learned. I went back to the second video once, got through about nine minutes total, and self-taught the rest again. Which is stupid, but it's me.

The current redesign came about because three things collided:
  1. I redid my blog's look last month with Blogger's tools. The result pleased me.
  2. I was embarking on a huge expansion of the rudimentary Columbine Instructor Guide (Teacher's Guide)
  3.  I was overhauling Columbine Online.
That led to an October where I didn't sleep much. I've been averaging 4-5 hours a night, and I don't do well under 8. I've got huge bags under my eyes. Literally. But I've been obsessed. I wake up to see at 5 or 6 a.m., and my head is reeling with all the stuff I still want to add, change, simplify . . .

I'm almost there. I ended up with three separate sites for each of the three just mentioned. They all share the new look and navigation concept.

Home page--Oct 2010
Today, October 28, #1 is ready. This is my home page, which I try to keep simple, but I direct most traffic to start at my Columbine page pictured at the top of this post.

The others are in transition. I'll announce when each one is fully loaded next week. 

I'd love to hear what you think. Do they still look amateur, or reasonably professional? Easy to get around? Useful in any way?

I hope so. Let me know.

10 comments:

  1. I miss the menu at the top.

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  2. I'm not sure what you mean. I sure hope there's a menu on the top--unless some browser won't decode it. Did you go to the site? What browser are you using?

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  3. I love the latest look of your website, Dave.
    Huge improvement, and yes, this one does look professional to me.
    Job well done, I'd say; congratulations.

    Now go get some sleep ;-)...

    And I do not miss the menu at the top - because it's right there.

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  4. Thanks, Mark. That's a relief to hear.

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  5. Looks great to me, Dave. Not cluttered and easy to navigate.

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  6. For the future planning this blog is very useful and supportive to me.Give more ideas for the future in the next article in this blog. I'll waiting for that ideas. Best of luck

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    1. The post is pretty interesting. I really never thought I could have a good read by this time until I found out this site.

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  7. Good explanation about these evolution and other similar websites.

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