Lapham’s Quarterly

A few dev notes on the recently-launched redesign of Lapham’s Quarterly:

  • The site was designed and built by Bluecadet (with the exception of the online store, for which we only did the design templates). Design was led by Theresa Decker. Will Vedder and Greg Sarault handled most of the development. Kevin Zakszewski did a lot of early responsive prototyping during the wireframe and design phases. Rebecca Smith handled both content strategy and project management (!). I did technical strategy and a few tricky Drupal/JavaScript pieces.
  • It’s a Drupal site. Drupal can be a sprawling beast sometimes, but it was a good fit for this project because of the complex relationships between issues, contributors, and individual articles.
  • We built and deployed the site on Pantheon, which allowed us to open up the CMS to content authors in one tier while we developed/tested on the other tiers.
  • A lot of Lapham’s Quarterly’s content requirements involved some form of what we internally dubbed “sophisticated whimsy” – Essays and Voices in Time on the issue page had to be pulled randomly, for instance. We ended up doing a few compound views to achieve complex layouts.
  • Artwork and quotes that appear on Essays and Voices in Time are not directly related to the piece itself (carrying over a hallmark of the print quarterly). For the website, however, Lapham’s Quarterly wanted the artwork and quotes to also be random, lending the piece a slightly different look each time it was loaded. Content authors choose the point at which they want to insert an instance of one of three types of content: a column-width image, a widescreen image, or a quote. These generate markup patterns that then replaced with a random instance of artwork, pulled from the available options for that issue (each issue has a bucket of artwork/quotes).
  • Each issue that Lapham’s Quarterly publishes has a signature color. In the website’s design system this translates to a set of four hex values to cover different states: default, rollover, emphasis, etc. We wouldn’t be able to treat those colors as Sass variables, since we didn’t want to have to add to the stylesheet each time Lapham’s Quarterly published a new issue. So they are injected at the page template level, based on the values set by content authors for that issue. The styles … cascade.
  • Lapham’s Quarterly needed a way to designate an issue as “Coming Soon”. This meant that any content associated with that issue would not be displayed/linked from the archive pages. We had to write a few hook functions to filter taxonomies prior to display.
  • Handling BC dates turned into more of an interesting development problem than we anticipated, because we wanted to keep the actual date value different from the display, to make sorting content by date easier. We ended up writing a small custom module to transform BC dates for display.
  • There was a lot of iterative design and development for this project. One example is the slide-out tab allows you to get back to the main issue page. That was originally visible at all times, but as we started testing content we realized that it obscured the widescreen images. So we turned it into a little pull-tab.
  • There’s no single workflow technique that emerged from this project, just a general feeling that team conversations around a whiteboard are rarely a waste of time. In most cases we arrived at a faster, more bulletproof solution than if we had sealed ourselves off to work in isolation.

We’re still fine-tuning thing under the hood, but I’m very happy with how the project turned out.

But Sleep *is* Work

Sleep

Several days ago I tweeted this:

We would probably be better off if we approached sleep as a productive action, not just a break from “real” work.

I haven’t stopped thinking about it, because I’ve been attempting to wake up just fifteen minutes earlier to read and pray, and the difficult part is that I should also be going to bed earlier. And that’s hard, because it feels indulgent.

I’m not sure when and how we’re taught to confuse sleep and rest with laziness, but here’s a (misunderstood) clue from the end of Proverbs 24:

A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest—
and poverty will come on you like a thief
and scarcity like an armed man.

Well, okay then.

Of course, if you read the whole passage, that verse comes after the author “went past the field of a sluggard, past the vineyard of someone who has no sense”. So it’s an indictment of laziness, not rest itself. Keep in mind that this is the same culture that had the Sabbath, where you were expressly forbidden to work. It’s as if the Old Testament God didn’t trust Israel to rest so he made it illegal to work for that one day.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

I once asked my wife why she didn’t nap when our kids took their afternoon nap. “Because that’s my only time to get things done”, she replied. And this is true, except that we don’t sleep much in the evenings, either. Parents make kids take naps because we know that they don’t function well without them, yet somehow we convince ourselves that those same physical/cognitive/emotional limits don’t apply to us. We’re adults. We’ll power through.

Busy Work

My friend Roberto called for more “idleness” as an addendum to my tweet—which I took to mean giving the brain enough time and space to unspool creatively. Shortly afterwards I read “Interrupt the Program” by Kio Stark, which closes with this exercise:

Do Nothing

Sit by yourself somewhere in public for 7 minutes without looking at your phone. It has to be somewhere without a TV. Neither of these are bad, I like them too. Do it anyway. This may make you uncomfortable. Do it anyway. Unless you choose to sleep, you will find that you are forced to look at something. What is it? Are you reading signs or looking at things in store windows? Are you looking at other people? Are you looking at trees? Water? Sand? Cement? If you start talking to yourself in your head, you are doing this right. I should have said at the beginning, take a pen in case you want to write something down. You can write on your hand, it’ll wash off. You have been awake.

I love that last line: “You have been awake”. It makes me look at my autopilot, head-down, get-things-done mode as somehow not fully awake, a fugue state where importance and urgency are confused. Busy work, then. Much visible effort to little purpose.

Nap Room

Bluecadet is moving to a new office this fall, and there’s been lots of half-jokes about the need for a nap room. We laugh, because we know it would never happen. But what if it did? I’d wager we’d see more productive people. The danger that I see is if people use the nap as a way to shortchange themselves even further from their evening sleep.

Perhaps our true weakness lies not in our inability to push ourselves past limits, but in our refusal to take care of our very selves.

Band of Outsiders

Erin Kissane just wrote an essay for the pastry box project, which I can only describe as “A Letter to a Young Web Professional”. In it she talks about coming to the web community from outside, and offers some great advice on how to navigate new and unfamiliar waters. It’s very much an essay I wish that I could send back in time to myself, but the advice about culture, curiosity, generosity, and entitlement is still relevant to me right this second.

Curiosity

Erin writes this:

Read all the things. Watch all the videos. Develop opinions about what you’re reading and hearing—and try to balance negative criticism with generosity, because there are always complexities that are easy to miss.

I think Erin’s advice is evergreen: you cannot succeed as a web professional without an enduring sense of curiosity. I liken it to waking up every morning and finding that the rules and tools have changed ever so slightly. If you’re going to work on the web, you had better get comfortable being uncomfortable, because every day you’ll find yourself (re)learning.

The line about counterbalancing negative criticism is probably even more important, though. I’ve worked with many people who seem to delight in tearing down other people’s work. Curiously, there’s often an inverse relationship to the quality of that person’s own work. It’s fine to have a negative reaction to something, but remember that being able to express that opinion with grace will get you further in your career.

Generosity

Speaking of generosity, actively seek out a mentor. It’s been my experience that people in our community love explaining things, even if they’re really busy. I suppose it goes hand-in-hand with the curiosity bit. It’s kind of hard to be curious without also being excited to share what you know.

When I started working on the web I was fortunate to have an experienced programmer named Mike Abato as one of my mentors. Mike was a professional educator in earlier parts of his career, and that was evident every time he would walk me through why and how we solved a problem a particular way. He taught me how to debug code, the value of the UNIX command line, and why memorizing keyboard shortcuts would pay off immeasurably over time. He didn’t really have to do any of these things, but he enjoyed it. Now, almost fifteen years later, I try to put in similar time and care when I’m solving things with a junior colleague. If I’m fortunate maybe they’ll look back fondly and thank me silently.

At the same time, you don’t have to be the more experienced party to be generous. Erin put it this way: “Help the people you work with be awesome”. That’s something you can do, regardless of your experience level.

You Can Say No

On “bad” jobs, Erin writes:

The hard reality is that you will probably have at least one terrible job, if you haven’t already. And you probably won’t be able to quit immediately, especially if you don’t have financial support from your family, or if you’re reliant on a sponsored visa, or you have kids of your own, or a dozen other things. This is hugely stressful even for people who aren’t particularly vulnerable, and no easy advice helps.

There truly is no easy advice for a bad job situation, but even the hard sort is useful. During my first job out of college I was working 70-90 hours a week, and I was convinced that it was necessary. A more experienced coworker quit a few months after I started, and when he said goodbye he told me, “You can always say no.” Nobody had told me that before. Now, you may not be able to say no for a multitude of reasons, but try to remember that you’re choosing not to say it.

Fortunately, there are ways out, and Erin points out ways to actively get to a better place:

But you won’t be stuck forever. Our industry includes boatloads of kind, generous human beings and plenty of organizations that will support you in having a healthy life. You just have to make a path to get to them. How? Learn all you can where you are. Be good to people. And above all, get outside your company (or regional) bubble, talk to people who are doing amazing things, and ask how you can help.

Output is Important

Erin’s essay reminded me of a video that Allen Tan sent me months ago, wherein Ira Glass talks about the gap between your taste and your ability. Glass says:

What nobody tells people who are beginners—and I really wish someone had told this to me…is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

This is something I’m still learning to this day. I hold too tightly to things, often smothering ideas and projects because they don’t measure up. It’s important to remember that one of the surest ways to get better is to be comfortable producing and finishing work, even if the end result falls short of your vision. I wrote recently about how big projects often leave me with a sense of loss and regret, and I think I often avoid that feeling by simply choosing not to produce anything.

Make things, and keep making them. If you make things often enough, you might not even realize that you’ve gradually gotten better and better, until all of a sudden you find yourself writing some of this down, much like Erin did.