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scientific and technical website design projects news

Articles on website design

George & Dragon, Lancaster

George and Dragon logo, remastered from the pub-sign original by Barry (Sept. 2020).

The George and Dragon is one of the oldest pubs in Lancaster – it has been serving beer for longer than many coutries have existed! It was a great pleasure to work with Mike and Anne to develop this new website for them – allowing visitors to check what is available without crowding around the bar.

The new website is driven by a custom administration section that allows Mike to add new beers to his cellar, and put them on the virtual bar at the click of a button. The one-page site is built around Google’s ‘Rich Results’ platform, providing meta-data to help publicise opening times, current selection of beers, and events (when these become possible).

The George and Dragon Pub on the historic Quay in Lancaster. (Photo by Barry Nov. 2017)
the George and Dragon (center) on the historic quay in Lancaster.

To keep their patrons safe during the COVID-19 crisis; the George is offering at table service in their beer garden:

The George & Dragon pub, Lancaster

Blockprint your mug with SVG!

We’ll start with a real webdesign conundrum: How do you build a site that is interesting, but does not overload my server, your data-connection, or your device’s processing capability. I guess you might also appreciate my not using up all of this months data allowance too!

You can start block printing your mug design with this traditional gardener’s plea: Grow, damn you!

Flower blockprint dev

Here I have built a large-ish graphic using the block printing concept; a concept I first encountered on the mugs my mother owned in the 60’s. The design is generated by repeating three simple graphical elements. When you click the ‘Grow, damn you!’ link these are assembled in a step-wise fashion to generate a pseudo random pattern. I believe there are 274 million different final designs possible (see wikihow.com); most permutations look OK, though some are more visually interesting than others.

Does it work? Well, if you have read this far, then yes! Putting this into numbers for comparison; the code required to generate the block-print comes in at under 4kB. The photograph shown below comes in at 44kB…

Photograph of a wildflower.

I think both images are quite pleasing; clearly they would serve very different roles in a website, and would be used in different circumstances. When a technique like this is appropriate, however, you can enhance your visitor’s experience, at minimal cost to yourself OR to your visitor (what is not to like?)*

If you like the design you have generated you can get it printed on a mug at the T shirt Studio (link below), but you will need to zoom in on the graphic (it is SVG, so you can zoom the page as much as you need without it pixelating – this will not work for the photograph;-), and grab a screenshot first – as the design will (almost certainly) be different the next time you visit!

tshirtstudio (other online printers are available).

* Custom art is ALWAYS expensive to create; the saving is in ensuring your server gets pages to more (up to 10× more) potential visitors (customers?) for the same infrastructure cost!

Mobile statistics (2)

In 2015, we noted that access to websites through mobile devices was a vital consideration in any new website design. Back then the headline figures from Ofcom were somewhat exaggerated, being based on kB of data transferred, but claimed 61% of web traffic was through mobile devices. This was not reflected in statistical reports based on visitor numbers to ‘normal’ websites, or in own observation of browsing statistics on client’s websites.

A personal glimpse of current browsing habits (July 2020), suggests that our client’s websites are now more closely in-line with the earlier Ofcom report:

Visitors to commercial websites now split approximately evenly between desktop and mobile devices, while visitors using a tablet come in at about 20% of the total.

Visitors to our academic websites, in contrast, have more conservative browsing habits: Most academics have access to a larger desktop device which they use for research, and the statistical split is closer to 80% on desktops, with most of the remaining visitors being on smaller mobile devices, and only about 1% accessing sites through tablets. For some academic sites there will also be issues with getting access to an internal site that is only available over a VPN, but that is not a factor in these statistics.

Despite the change in visitor profile, very few modern websites pay more than lip-service to design for mobile use. The design principle stops at cramming a large desktop site (that the boss sees in the design briefs) into a smaller format, with no consideration to the reduced processing power and bandwidth that these devices have access to, or increased cost a visitor may experience in downloading a graphics heavy website…

Wilkinson Charitable Foundation

Logo of the Wilkinson Charitable Foundation.

The Wilkinson Charitable Foundation was established under a Trust Deed made by the late Professor Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson in 1978. Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson needs no introduction to fellow chemists, being the 1973 Nobel Prize winner for his work developing Organometallic Chemistry, but also as the co-author of ‘Cotton and Wilkinson’ the standard undergraduate inorganic chemistry text for many years.

The Foundation has been acting behind the scenes for many years, offering studentships and prizes for chemiatry related activities. Recently the board decided that the Foundation would be better served by having an online presence.

We used a standard WordPress template (‘Twenty Seventeen’), minimising development costs for the Foundation whilst providing a fully featured website. Our role was in helping to prepare content for inclusion in the site, including images and video hosting.

UK Society for Biomaterials

The UK Society for Biomaterials (UKSB) is a non-profit organization working to develop novel biomaterials to tackle current clinical needs for medical devices, prosthetics and for regenerative medicine. Their membership interests include medical materials science, biosensors, biomechanics, biocompatibility, tissue engineering, and many other subjects.

The site is fully mobile compatible. It is built in WordPress, to permit the society to add and edit content, and includes a separate membership section, where members can add a brief profile and gallery of work to illustrate their scientific activity.

Screenshot of the UKSB website from a mobile device.

The WordPress installation has a custom Newsletter (see our previous post on society newsletters), and facility for uploading banner images. Banner images are automatically saved at multiple resolutions to optimise site performance – lowe resolution images being served initially, and for mobile devices, to ensure the site responds quickly to visitor requests. Higher resolution banners download after the page has been displayed, and quietly replace the low res. version, giving the appearance of the image snapping into focus. On mobile devices the iinitial low res. version is adequate for the smaller display area, and a high res. version is not downloaded to save the visitor’s bandwidth costs.

Membership payments, including a reminder system, are automated. Payments are made through PayPal.

Electronic and photonic molecular materials website

We created the Electronic and photonic molecular materials website a number of years ago. The design was based on that used at the time by the University of Sheffield, of which the research group is a part, and is still quite visually striking and effective (a lot more easily used and navigated than a modern ‘bootstrap’ site!) – on a desktop browser…

Over the decades the underlying mechanics of the web have changed – today sites need to be mobile friendly! There was a need for an inexpensive site update that would make the site accessible to mobile/phone format browsers, and work with a new HTTPS certificate.

The original home page had a series of eye-catching full page images displayed in a slide-show. The new home page serves one of three full page images tailored to wide screen, tablet and phone screens*. This reduces the bandwidth needed on mobile devices, which do not need to pull down the large format photographs, and so makes browsing the site a lot less painful on these devices. The low budget meant that we have lost the slide-show, so different banner images are served at random, with a new image being selected each time you visit the home page.

EPMM mobile screenshot

Above: A screenshot of the new Mobile-friendly EPMM website. The items in the menu bar were just a little too wide to fit comfortably accross a smaller mobile screen, so the link to the Department of Physics and Astronomy has been disguised as a shorter (but well known) equation (where else would you expect to go with the link F=ma?) …

* This used the HTML5 ‘picture’ element with artistic direction; so we have carefully chosen sections of the large image that give best impact at successively smaller screen sizes. The picture element is not available on Internet Explorer (note, this browser is now obsolete), or on older iOS devices. In these instances the visitor gets the rather over-large banner image.

SPINNER logo design

Part of our remit for designing the Spine repair training website (SPINNER) was to develop a new logo and icon for them. Their initial ideas had focussed on a web spinner in medical greens – which was quite attractive, and reflected the name of the programme, but not its role…

We therefore looked at introducing a more’spinal’ quality to the logo design: Our initial design sheet investigated using ‘s’ shaped spine as the initial ‘S’ in spinner, printing the spinner name with each letter on a separate vertebra, and placing the initial ‘S’ on a single vertebra.

Through discussion with the client, and many itterations, we came to the final design, in which the spine is used as the body of the ‘i’, with the dot at the head.

The final SPINNER logo
Above: the final version of the SPINNER logo.

The logo was built as a vector format (SVG) image, and is used on all pages of the site. The logo is also used in the site icon, and the apple-touch-icon. The best format for the latter is a subject of some debate amongst web professionals (see Apple touch icon: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from Favicon’s blog), we create a 120x120px square icon as a standard for our website clients.

The vector format allows us to scale the image without distortion, permitting us to easily create versions for high resolution print work.

Spine repair training website (spinner)

Spinner home page screenshot

The new SPINNER-EID website is the online presence of a European training network focussing on Numerical and Experimental Repair strategies for the human spine. Training focusses on developing new materials and techniques, and brings together the Universities of Bologna and Sheffield, the leading medical manufacturers from around Europe, and the National Centre for Spinal Disorders in Hungary. The SPINNER group is currently (April 2018) recruiting suitable students for their doctoral training programme; for more details visit:

SPINNER-EID website

The site is built in WordPress, to enable the management team to add new content and develop an online community for students working in a number of locations accross Europe. The site itself has a modern appearance, and most design houses achieve this by adding packages such as ‘Bootstrap’ to the core WordPress package. This generally results in a site that has a very large number of download dependencies – the site cannot be displayed until a large number of libraries have been downloaded. As you might expect from the name ‘library’, each of these downloads adds a lot of cuntionality to the site, unfortunately the designer is usually only employing a few lines of code from each…

Lean design improving the visitor’s browsing experience

In contrast, our own approach is one of ‘lean design’, functionality is supported by the minimum amount of code possible, and this is deployed in as few download packages as we can manage (two style sheets, one for site styling, the other providing the Open Sans font used for text on the site). Ths obective is to improve the browsing experience for visitors, by reducing page load times, which is particularly an issue over mobile networks (especially if you are paying by the MB for your data connection!).

The philosophy is carried over to the custom home page slide show. This downloads a low resolution image in the first instance, so the page can be rendered quickly. Once the page has been loaded, code checks the display width – if you are on a mobile device, nothing more will happen, so you will not stack up bills downloading big photos that your phone cannot display anyway…

If you are on a wide screen desktop, however, the site will offer a high resolution image to replace the initial quick download. If you look carefully, you will see the banner image snap into focus as this happens. The ‘focus snap’ effect is subtle, but quite pleasing in itself (take a look)…

Code standards are to W3C HTML5 and CSS3/SVG.

Member Newsletters

Screenshot of the DARE Newsletter at Mobile screen dimensions.
Most societies make use of Newsletters to keep in contact with membership; to let them know what their society is up to, and advertise up-coming conferences or other events. The mechanics behind getting this information out are varied, but for small and medium-sized groups the Emailed Newsletter is the most cost-efficient. The mechanics of actually getting the Newsletter out, however, are very varied, with a number of excellent online services.

Here, we will look at an entry level option, ALO Newsletter. This is a plugin available for WordPress users that allows you to compose your Newsletter using the tools you are familiar with. I have used ALO Newsletter for a number of years now for Lancashire MCS, so suggesting it as an option to clients was quite natural, and I felt pretty confident that the plugin was both up-to-the-job, and well maintained!

ALO handles the basic mechanics of an Emailed Newsletter very well, offering HTML and text versions, and throttling the mailing process to help prevent your mail server getting shut down as a spam source. This latter process allows you to use the Newsletter on a standard commercial hosting package without too many problems. Finally, ALO offers a report, giving you feedback on how successful your mailshot was, with estimates as to how many people actually read the Newsletter.

Clearly it is quite important to make the Newsletter both attractive, and easily readable! Normally, you would also want the Newsletter to reflect your society’s branding, and this will require the development of a custom template for the Newsletter. Generally a Newsletter works better with a simplified layout (as email clients are not as clever as web browsers overly complicated styling is punished), so development costs can be kept down.

Here we will just look at a coupe of new and updated designs for Newsletters. The main recent change is to design them so that they display well on a mobile device. Here the HTML based newsletter offers massive advantages over say an emailed PDF version of your print or Word Processed Newsletter. Font sizes stay at a legible size, and in a mobile-friendly design the content will re-flow automatically to work with the narrow screen!

The DARE newsletter (top right, shown in mobile view, but links to a full-screen image) is a standard Newsletter design (as is our MCS Newsletter). Visitors to your website can be invited to subscribe to the Newsletter, and the copy in the Newsletter offers offers the usual ‘view in browser’ and unsubscribe links, plus customisation, referring to the subscriber by name. This example was a test put together by Jean at DARE, and is very clean, attractive (and easily read), with short articles offering links for more information on the main website.

Mobile version of the ESB Newsletter.

We have also recently updated the European Society of Biomaterials (ESB) Newsletter (right). This serves the membership of the society, and takes its subscribers directly from the membership database (as a member of the public you cannot subscribe to it). As a consequence we are able to do some clever tricks in the back end.

This Newsletter has sender groups determined by membership type (Academic member, student, industrial member), and by status (whether or not the member has paid the current subscription), and by mailing preference (the member can ask only to receive essential society news concerning their membership). This allows the Society to remind members when their subscriptions are due (without having to badger members who have already paid), as well as do the usual communication jobs required of a Newsletter…

Soft Matter Physics website

Soft Matter Physics - polymer diffusion

We have just completed our update of Mark Geoghegan’s research website. Or original design from 2007 was extremely clean and distinctive. Much of this is retained in the new site, offering visual continuation. The main additions have been to improve mobile compatibility, which is essential for a modern site, and back end updates to make it easier to maintain. The new mobile interface is particularly approachable, with icons offering a choice of menu, and quick links to the main site pages…

An important part of the update has been to convert Flash based animations to browser native formats. At one point Google offered an adequate translation service for simple animations, but unfortunately this is no longer available, and we found that none of the online translation services available at present could manage complex movies with Actionscript driven interactivity.

As you might expect, translating ‘linearised’ animations into video formats resulted in both large file size and a pixelated, poorly resolved movie. As a consequence we spent some time developing a CSS/Javascript framework that would allow us to re-write the features making use of current technology, with no third party script libraries. An instructive example, the linearised (simplified) Flash movie for ‘Single Polymer Diffusion‘ weighed in at 125kB, its .mov standard (raster) movie equivalent was over 10MB!

Converting the moving items into GIF or PNG sprites got the raster version down to 1.5MB – a massive improvement, but moving items showed significant graininess, and the file size was large enough to result in noticeable delay before the movie could be played.

The final movie (see Prof Geoghegan’s website: Single Polymer Diffusion) has a raster (JPEG) background (33kB) with HTML native sprites (~0kB) and 70kB of Javascript to position and move the sprites over the image. The final movie was, therefore, slightly smaller than the equivalent Flash file*.

* Technical note: In most instances Flash files would be smaller than the equivalent HTML/CSS/Javascript application, because they can be delivered in compressed binary format. In this instance, however, text is handled by the HTML page (so no overhead for downloading fonts), and the moving items could be represented by duplicating a simple HTML native shape, so the shape of the moving item could be coded in perhaps 200 bytes – leaving us with the task of positioning these shapes on our back-drop using Javascript (which is consequently quite ‘windy’)…