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Giving in to Bootstrap

Have you ever noticed that most sites for tech startups (and related tech ventures) look remarkably the same, kind of like the Project Callisto site [1]? Do you know why? There are probably a variety of reasons, few of which I know. I expect that folks don’t have the resources to hire a good designer, and so use standard templates [2]. Amazingly, a lot of standard templates, and most of the similar looking sites, use a toolkit called Bootstrap [3].

For the past year or so, I think I’ve said I hate Bootstrap nearly every day. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with the standard Bootstrap design, or the minor variants thereof. Rather, I don’t particularly appreciate the sameness of it all. I like to see creative design. Using Bootstrap is not creative. Of course, as I think I put in an endnote [4], amateur designers [5] can produce some pretty atrocious stuff. And I’ll admit that I think one of the biggest strengths of the original Mac was that they had carefully designed user-interface guidelines that they expected all applications to follow. But I’d still like to see some creativity go into the work of designing a Web site. A standard Bootstrap site tells me that you were too lazy to think about design, and just fiddled with a few settings.

Bootstrap is everywhere. You may note that now that we seem to have made the full transition to considering the primary purpose of the the Grinnell College Website to be recruiting students, rather than supporting folks on campus [6], it too has moved to Bootstrap. However, I think our designers have been successful at not making it look like every other Bootstrap site [7]. I did, however, send a note to Sarah Anderson with some snarky comment about Bootstrap.

It therefore pains me to admit that I am likely moving to Bootstrap for my course Web sites. Why? Well, it seems that my colleague, Charlie Curtsinger, using Jekyll and Bootstrap to build his course webs, and has convinced me that I should do the same, particularly since we sometimes co-teach CSC 151. I like the idea of moving to an extended Markdown. I don’t think his sites look like the standard Bootstrap sites. I even admit that his sites look better than mine.

Of course, I could probably still use Jekyll and shared resources, and just plug in a separate stylesheet (and standard document header). But I’m going along with the Bootstrap. Why? Well, there is one really nice part of Bootstrap, at least from my perspective. Bootstrap does a pretty nice job of adapting to different screen sizes. For example, if the page shrinks enough, Bootstrap changes the navigation bar to a hamburger [9]. I do have some concerns, such as Bootstrap’s reliance on JavaScript [10]. But I think I’ll see just how troublesome that really is. In the end, I think Charlie is smart and thoughtful, so if he uses Bootstrap, there are probably good reasons for it.

Do I feel bad that I’ve complained about Bootstrap daily for the past year and then started using it? A bit. But I shouldn’t disregard a helpful tool just because I don’t like how many people use it. A sensible technologist makes use of what’s available at hand. So it’s not as bad as I thought when I started writing this essay. Yes, I still hate that sameness of the standard Bootstrap sites. Yes, I like the facilities that it looks like Bootstrap will give me. I think I can hold both views simultaneously. I guess I can end up adopting a technology that I think I hate [11]. Who knows? Maybe in a month or so, you’ll see the musings in a new Bootstrap-enhanced [12] layout?

[1] You may remember an earlier essay on Project Callisto.

[2] Arguably, just as in the early days of desktop publishing, it’s probably best that we avoid amateur design.

[3] And yes, if you go to the Bootstrap site, it will look a whole like all of those sites I just said look the same.

[4] Yup, it looks like I did. It’s endnote #2.

[5] Including me.

[6] Or alumni, or faculty at other institutions, or really any of the broad variety of audiences we once had.

[7] That doesn’t mean that I particularly like the design. But I’m not the target audience of the Web site [8].

[8] Not any more, at least.

[9] A hamburger is the symbol with three horizontal lines that is now taken to mean Look! This is a menu!.

[10] Perhaps it’s because I’m in computer science, but I know a remarkable number of people who disable scripting by default.

[11] Probably not Microsoft Windows, though.

[12] Hmmm … is enhanced the right term? Oh well, it’s what I’m going with.

Version 1.0.1 released 2017-01-19.

Version 1.0.2 of 2018-02-25.