CalgaryUrbanite Reboot: A Case Study

Posted December 1, 2010
Next article: The Purple Revolution

Reboots are cool. Everyone knows that.

There's Reboot Alberta. Batman Begins. Or this. All awesome.

Why do we do them? To fix something that's broken? To reinvigorate something that held people's interest?  To express new ideas? All of the above.

At least that's why I've spent the better part of the year, on and off, working away at a new version of this website. If you aren't familiar with this site, it's called CalgaryUrbanite, a blog about sustainability from a Calgarian's perspective. If you aren't familiar with me, my name's Derek McBurney, and I'm a web geek, a political geek and a sustainability geek. Lucky for me, all of those realms seem to be a hot topic these days (or at least they are to the circles I involve myself with). If you disagree, this site probably isn't for you. You might be wondering, why is this site still the same old hideous and hard to read design if I spent so much time recrafting it? Well, I thought I'd start the new CalgaryUrbanite with a little homage to the last one.

So, a little history: I started this site in February of 2009, as my statement that Calgary does have a thriving sustainability scene, and that Calgarians do care about the environment. However, in late September of 2009, I wrote my last post here. It was never intended to be my last, but my priority had switched to ensuring my sustainability non-profit organization, my world, my choice! would have a successful pilot run. I have yearned to return to this site ever since, but only on the condition I'd improve the site based on my observations from last years run:

People were actually engaged by some of my writing. This was unexpected.
The community-contributed-posts idea didn't quite take off. This was always expected.
I put a lot of effort into each of my posts, (until I stopped writing them any way), which brings me to my final point.
I didn't put out enough posts. 

So I developed two pillars on which to focus the site's development:

1. Widen the scope - I didn't put out enough posts because my site's focus was too narrow. Well, actually, many would disagree that sustainability is too 'narrow' a subject. Let me rephrase. My knowledge of sustainability was too narrow. I deeply care about sustainability in all its forms, but coming up with compelling articles on the topic I found challenging. Not because it's not a compelling issue, but because I don't have as much time as I'd like to dig up the most interesting stuff to talk about. So I'm choosing to widen the scope of my writing, I'm a geek when it comes to far too many things, so I might as well write about them.

2. Focus the site on the writing - Even with a wider scope, I want to focus on making great articles on this site. Quality not quantity. If you want quantity from me, I encourage you to follow me on twitter! So, how can I focus the site on the writing? Well the last site was too complicated. The site was at its core, my articles (and a few guest articles, thanks contributors!), but strived to give the appearance it was more. It wasn't, and it won't be. I've learned that good design isn't about creating complexity, but the opposite.

So, to improve the design, I had to appreciate what the last design lacked: 

The old site

Why wasn't the content as much of a star as it should have been?

The text was tiny and hard to read. Really tiny. Even smaller than it is right now.
(I couldn't bring myself to match the old text size even this faithful recreation of the old site's look)
The article is confined to a small space, so that a couple of social media links could be beside it, but nothing else.
The theme, that every post must follow, is really dark. It becomes too daunting post after post (not to mention makes things hard to read).
The search bar is extremely visible on all articles, and why would you need it once you've found an article anyway?

It was these observations that drove me to come up with a better, more flexible, content-focused design if I was to keep cranking out articles. So, with that, I say good bye to the old CalgaryUrbanite, and hello to the new.

Welcome to the New


Ahhh, freedom! I spent a great deal of time building the site so that each article can have its own theme. Now layouts that are only limited by my imagination (and my knowledge of design principles). No longer is the article limited to a reduced section of the page layout, but it is the page layout!

Bright colours. Easy-to-read text. Finally! You'll have to forgive me if this excites me more than you, but to have a site where each article can have a customized look, and not follow the same template, is like the web design equivalent of quitting your day job and travelling the world. Now the content truly is the focus. I've even reduced the amount of clicks to get to the latest article on the site from one to zero. In design, it's the little things that make the biggest difference.

If you had the patience to read through this little case study, I like you. You'll do well here.

I'm looking forward to getting started on some new articles, and just like before, you can sign up and write your own articles.

I'm looking forward to the creativity that comes forward from this new version of the site. I just hope I can stick with this look long enough to get some good new content up before I go off web designing again! Thanks for visiting, and stay tuned!