The dConstruct 2012 website

I got an email recently from the guys at Cyber Duck asking me about the process behind the dConstruct 2012 website, beautifully designed by Bevan. Ethan actually used it as an example in his An Event Apart talk earlier this week. Anyway, here’s what I wrote…

The dConstruct conference takes place on the first Friday of September every year, and every year the conference has a different theme. That theme then influences the visual design of the site. To start with, we throw up a quick holding page and then, once we’ve got our speakers all set, we launch the site proper, usually a month or so before tickets go on sale.

At Clearleft, we believe very strongly in the universality of the web. We wanted the information on the 2012 dConstruct website to be available to anybody with an internet connection, no matter what kind of device or browser they’re using. That does not mean that the site should look and behave exactly the same in every browser or on every device. That isn’t practical. Nor is it desirable, in my opinion. Better browsers should be rewarded with a better experience. But every browser should be able to access the content. The best way to achieve that balance is through progressive enhancement. Responsive web design—when it’s done mobile first—is an excellent example of progressive enhancement in action.

The theme for dConstruct 2012 was “Playing With The Future”. It would be easy to go overboard with a visual design based on that theme, so we made sure to reign things in a bit and keep it fairly subtle. The colour scheme evolved from previous years, going in a more pastel direction. The use of Futura for headline text was the biggest change.

Those colours (muted green, red, and blue) carried through to the imagery. In the case of a conference website, the imagery is primarily photographs of speakers. That usually means JPEGs and sometimes those JPEGs can get pretty weighty. In this case, the monochrome nature of the images meant that we could use PNGs. Not only that, but through a little experimentation, we were able to get away with sometimes using as few as 16 colours for the PNG. That meant the file sizes could be nice and small. The average speaker photo was around 12K in weight.

Each speaker photo is 200x200 pixels in size. Now, you might think that we’d want to make those bigger as we moved up from small screen sizes to larger, desktop sizes. But actually, because the layout changes to put more of the photos side-by-side as the viewport gets larger, there was no need to do any clever responsive image-swapping. Instead, we spent that time getting the images as small in file size as we possibly could. The ImageOptim app for Mac is very handy for helping with this.

There are also some background images (for social media icons, background textures, and the like). These were all Base 64-encoded into the stylesheet to avoid extra HTTP requests.

The priority was very much on keeping things speedy. When talking about responsive design, there’s a lot of emphasis on layout but actually that was a relatively straightforward part of the 2012 dConstruct site: there’s nothing too complicated going on there. Instead, the focus was on performance balanced with a striking visual design.

On the individual speaker pages, there’s a bit of conditional loading going on. For example, most pages include a link to a video on YouTube or Vimeo. On larger screen sizes, there’s a bit of JavaScript to pull in that video and display it right on the page. Crucially, this JavaScript runs after the rest of the document has already loaded so it won’t block the rendering. The end result is that everyone has access to the video: on smaller screens, it’s available by following a link; on larger screens, it’s available in situ.

JavaScript is only ever used to enhance, never as a requirement for core functionality. The navigation, for example, has a nice toggle-to-reveal behaviour on small screens if JavaScript is available. But if JavaScript isn’t available or doesn’t load for some reason, then the navigation is simply visible by default. It’s important to consider safe defaults before adding behavioural enhancements.

In retrospect, it probably would’ve made more sense to simply inline the JavaScript at the bottom of each page: the external file isn’t very big at all, and that extra HTTP request could’ve been saved.

There were some other things that could’ve been done better: some of the images might have been better as SVG (the logo, for example). But all those lessons were carried forward and so the site for dConstruct 2013 is even snappier and more performant.

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