Rebuilding subvisual.com

By Pedro CostaOn June 25, 2020

Rebuilding subvisual.com

In the end of 2018 we started working on the rebranding process for Subvisual. We had grown beyond the identity we coined in 2015, and we felt the brand needed to reflect both that growth and our ambition for the future. Consequently, that brought along a new website.

Telling a Story

When envisioning our new brand and website, we wanted it to tell a story. One that reached deep into our past, but that held well into our future.

When we initially became Subvisual, we wanted it to show how our work speaks for us. How we go the extra mile in what we do and look at the smallest details with the utmost attention. We wanted it to convey our craftsmanship as a seal of excellence.

We reach for solutions that seem invisible or impossible for most by sweating the most intangible details.

João Ferreira, in "Why Subvisual?"

Five years later, we are now more than just ourselves, we are a universe of ideas being nurtured.

In this universe, we are but a single planet, and a rather small one. This little planet is just an ambitious dream with a clear end goal: to empower people, by helping give birth to countless little worlds and helping them grow.

More than show what we can do, we wanted our new website to tell this story. When visitors reach our site, we want them to see the Subvisual name take the shape of a small planet that hovers in the space of their browser. As they scroll through our home page, the little planet follows them around. When they reach the section where we show our ventures, this little planet spawns one for each venture in there. And, as they keep scrolling, each planet takes its stand by its venture. The little Subvisual planet stays on the side, just an advisor watching them thrive.

As visitors keep scrolling past our ventures, the little planet fills the screen, as if they zoomed in on our little world. We talk a bit of ourselves and we show the people that make this world what it is, but that's it. Just as we are not the stars in our own universe, we don't shine brighter in our own website. Visitors now know us a bit better, and they know how to reach us. The rest comes from working together.

Picking Our Fights

We help make digital products for the Web, and we take pride in what we do. And although showing our skills was not the main purpose of the website, we wanted to do something that would make us proud and impress who was getting to know us.

The idea was simple in theory. We wanted to show the story of the little planet as visitors scrolled through our website. Which meant going deeper into Web animations like we never did before.

Back when we were making the first Subvisual website, we went all out to show our craftsmanship, from Bruno's animations of the hero planets and the origami bird, and Justo's animations of the pop-up buildings, both using GSAP's TweenLite library, to Miguel's CSS-only animated atom. We invested weeks in these details so that we could show how good we are.

This time we didn't feel such an effort would pay off. First, because we have made a name for ourselves. Our clients and partners know how good we are and their success is our best testimonial. And also, because the Web animations ecosystem evolved a lot since, while the most our projects pushed us in terms of animations was accomplished with CSS-only animations. This meant we would have to reinvest all that effort for little more than bragging rights.

So we dialed back a little, but aimed high. We looked at others for inspiration, dreamed big, and kept our feet on the ground. We would start simple and build from there.

Exploring Gatsby.js

The first version of the Subvisual website was generated using Middleman, a static generator in Ruby that hits very close to home for Ruby on Rails developers. However using modern JavaScript tools to give the website the dynamism we were aiming for was not trivial with Middleman.

We decided instead to go with Gatsby.js. We had already been using Gatsby for our blog even before it reached version 1.0, and we had big hopes for it. Not only would it allow us to create the website using React, which is by far our preferred JavaScript framework, but it also had a plugin system we could possibly make use of.

Gatsby is now very stable and reliable, but when we started rebuilding the website we were constantly facing outdated documentation and examples. Another pebble in our shoes then was having to use GraphQL to gather all the information required. While we like GraphQL in our APIs, the truth is that it introduced a whole new barrier where we previously only had to go straight for a file.

That being said, Gatsby has proven to be an invaluable tool. The component oriented approach of building the website with React and CSS Modules fitted our existing approach of building UIs with SuitCSS. The generation of static pages with server-side rendering allowed our website to be made available even where JavaScript is not, and always blazing fast. And the rehydration process seamlessly brought all the dynamic parts of the website back to life when the client finishes loading everything.

The documentation has also since been updated, and now contains lots of useful recipes and guides. And if there's anything else missing, the plugin ecosystem will either contain an answer to our problems, or an inspiration from where we can devise our own.

Down the Animations Rabbit Hole

Gatsby was a major asset getting the first version of the new website done. It was pretty much only static content, with some built-in goodies on the mix like lazy-loading images. Now it was time to put some icing on this cake.

Historically the Subvisual team has changed very little over the years. But when we started this endeavour, Bruno already had one foot out the door. He was one of our front-end specialists, and was getting ready to embark on a journey outside the world of programming. So Justo and I had to step up to the plate, all without dropping the ball on any of our clients.

We went with React Morph right from the start. This wasn't an innocent choice though. The creator, Bruno Lourenço from Ginetta, is a close friend and has been working with us from some years now. Having seen what React Morph could do we jumped at the opportunity of it making our lives easier.

First we added the little blue Subvisual planet to the website. Its first stop was on our why, right at the top of the page. We ended up editing the very font (with the author's permission of course) and using a version without the tittle (I learned then that's the name of the dot in an "i"). We then added it on our venture section (where it would spawn new planets), to the side of our portfolio (where it would sit and watch the ventures from), and finally to the About section (where it would become) the background.

And then we had our dreams crushed. Adding React Morph was a breeze, but the animations were just not performant. As components disappeared in one place and appeared in another, React Morph did its best to smoothly transition from one place to the next, but we were just demanding too much of it. Our animations ended up all "jittered". We knew we were probably being naive, but we had hoped it would be that simple.

So we stepped back a bit, and decided to be pragmatic. We added the ventures planets in all the places we wanted them to stop, and made the planets hover randomly in their spots. This alone brought life to the website. We launched it, quietly, on the night of our 7th anniversary.

Over the next months Justo fought hard to get a performant splash screen, while I fought my way to get our blog back from limbo. Completely unrelated, I still believe, on October Justo announced he was leaving the company. We reached out to our ventures and recruited Francisco Sousa from Aurora Digital (at the time) who has since finished Justo's masterpiece and added a beautiful animation to the hero text.

The Aftermath

It has been over a year since we launched this new side of our brand, but it is still too soon to feel the ripples coming back. Those closest to us saw us grow, so they don't see any difference. But to the rest of the world we need to show we are now a venture studio. We want to help nurture the ideas that will empower people to change their world.

Our craftsmanship is not going away though. We'll help our ventures thrive by being the best we can at designing and developing digital products. But now we have a lot more experience and expertise added to our skills and curiosity.

I've told you the story we want to tell, but at the time I'm writing this you will notice that the story of the little planet is still not complete. To this day it is still waiting for someone better than me to make it travel among the stars. Are you up for the challenge?