P&B: Piper Haywood

This is the 11th edition of People and Blogs, the series where I ask interesting people to talk about themselves and their blogs. Today we have Piper Haywood and her blog, piperhaywood.com.

Piper is a software engineer, previously at SuperHi and currently looking for her next professional adventure.

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Let's start from the basics: can you introduce yourself?

I’m Piper Haywood, and I’m a design-adjacent software engineer based in Brooklyn. I came to my profession in a roundabout way, studied fine art at a liberal arts school in central Maine and took one CS course that I really liked. I had to make my own portfolio site in order to apply for a postgrad in fine art at Central Saint Martins, which led to building other people’s sites, and it sort of snowballed from there.

I met my husband Sam Baldwin when I was studying briefly at Glasgow School of Art, and then we re-met when I was in London for CSM. We ended up running a studio together for six years which was such a fundamental part of my growth as an engineer and professional. But it eventually came time to either really push it, to consider hiring people and that sort of thing, or to fold it and go our separate ways professionally. We decided on the latter, and though we’re still working on some fun stuff together, we’re enjoying working on larger, separate teams at the moment.

I just finished up a stint at SuperHi where I managed the engineers and worked on the next iteration of the platform, and am now looking for new contracting or FTE opportunities. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying poking around with a few side projects including a really exciting one I’m working on with Sam (!), and a whole ton of blog maintenance I’ve been itching to complete. In my free time, I’m usually chasing my toddler around all of the playgrounds in a three mile radius, cooking, recording memories on my blog, or singing in groups (previously with Musarc in London, now with the Brooklyn Conservatory Chorale).

What's the story behind your blog?

My blog started in 2014 when Sam and I decided to make a Tumblr theme that we felt should exist. We needed some test content to work with, so I started keeping track of thoughts and things. That theme project took a back seat, but I found I enjoyed recording things so I just kept going.

I eventually felt a bit penned-in by Tumblr and migrated it over to WordPress. I’ve been tempted to move it off WordPress here and there, I particularly love the ergonomics of a lightweight Eleventy setup. But as a writer, I rely on so many WordPress features that it would be silly to move, really. Also, I know of enough people that use my theme for their own sites that I’d like to keep supporting it by dogfooding it, if I can.

When I first started my blog, I kept it on a subdomain and didn’t really share it much. It helped keeping it less visible, it’s less pressure. I did eventually move it on to my main domain. Looking back through the Wayback Machine, it’s interesting looking at the old versions of my homepage. It doesn’t really feel like “me” until it’s a blog.

My first priority when I started messing around with the design of my blog, and something that remains a priority for me, is deemphasizing the title when appropriate. I think this might be something that I loved from Tumblr, though I didn’t love everything about how they implemented it. The thing is, a lot of stuff that I want to note or record just doesn’t need an obvious title. In fact, an obvious title would make it something other than what it is, something more official or something. If every short little thing I wanted to note required a super visible title, I don’t think I’d ever publish much of anything.

Besides that, I guess you might say that I have a bit of a propensity for white space. Some people might call it “minimal”, though I didn’t really purposefully seek out that vibe. Initially, I experimented with varying opacities for the tags. See an example in the Wayback Machine. So the darker the tag background, the more content associated with it. I liked the effect, but it was almost impossible to do it and keep it appropriately accessible. I fell out of love with writing on my blog for a bit around late 2017, but got back in to the swing of things by revisiting the design and making the blog my entire site in early 2018.

For the new design, I moved towards something more colorful. I was interested in having the color reflect the time of year, so I added a bar down the left-hand side that changed hue depending upon how far through the year the post was added. See this example in the Wayback Machine. It’s sort of hard to get a feel for the color change in that bar since those posts are relatively close together, but you can get a better picture of it if you look at the Browse page. I liked that it made the passage of time, the distance between posts, more obvious. Like that lull in 2017 becomes marked. As well as introducing the color, I started using monospace for all of the text. I wanted to move away from the prior typeface since, though lovely, it just felt a little precious to me. And I used it the same everywhere, always the same weight and size. IIRC it was somewhat inspired by this fantastic community cookbook that my grandma had, where it had clearly been typeset on a typewriter. But it was also a result of myself being extremely unfamiliar with good typography, so it just felt easier to use spacing to differentiate things. I did get frequent reminders that the hierarchy wasn’t great though, lol. In early 2019, I dropped the left color bar and instead gave the dates a color background so that you could differentiate the posts more easily when scrolling (see example). That was a useful suggestion from Sam.

Around the start of the pandemic, my friend Bec Worth and I got talking about my blog and how she found it similar to a commonplace book. I hadn’t encountered that idea before, but it immediately struck me as appropriate once I started reading up about it. She was interested in using my WordPress theme to keep track of her own thoughts, so we collaborated on a new theme that would be more appropriate for both of us and hopefully for others and inspired by the concept of a commonplace book for the web. (By the way, I would share her blog but I don’t really know if she wants it to be public TBH!) We ended up using a serif for the main body copy partly because we just like reading serif text. Also IIRC, it’s sort of a “screw you” to an old boss of Bec’s who said that using a serif, any serif, for some project she was working on would be too “girly”. The idea that an entire typeface category would be gendered, I mean come on! So the serif stuck.

We have further ideas for the theme. Like introducing other views (thumbnails, list, etc.) that you can set as default on a tag-by-tag basis. But life has gotten in the way for both of us, we both have had babies since we started looking at the theme together. I’m hoping to finally introduce some of the new features soon though. On a technical level, I’d like to make much wider use of CSS variables so that the theme is much more easily child-theme-able, for those that want to use it but would want to set up their own typographic system.

Oh and one other thing: analytics. I had Google Analytics on my site for a while, mostly because I found it interesting which posts people identified most with. I then moved to Matomo because I wanted to avoid sharing data unnecessarily. But when numbers started to climb up, I started to get more self-conscious about posting anything. And that’s the opposite of the point for me, it’s nice if I can pretend that no one reads it. So I got rid of analytics entirely in September 2020 and haven’t looked back.

I’m coming up on the 10th anniversary of my blog next year and have been tempted to do some sort of print-on-demand thing to get a hard-copy version of the entire thing, including all of the private posts that I keep for myself. But the index is such an important part of my blog, to me. And I’d want to get that right in a printed version, which would be tricky. I’m thinking of commissioning another engineer for it actually, if anyone knows of someone that would be interested and/or a good fit, let me know!

What does your creative process look like when it comes to blogging?

Oh gosh… it’s not a very formal process! I do have a folder in Apple Notes of things I think are interesting or want to remember, those are usually dashed off in a spare minute for revisiting later. Then when I have a second (which feels rare at the moment!), I’ll draft something up in WordPress. Some things languish in drafts forever. Other things get published privately (especially a lot of stuff relating to my son). And other things get a proper public post. I don’t spend a lot of time re-writing or editing things. That’s partly because most of my posts are fairly short, they don’t really warrant that sort of time.

Longer things like this post about making a Rietveld-esque crate stool or table take days and days. Sometimes I’ll publish it as a password-protected page first so that I can run it past other people for their opinion before making it live. But super long-format stuff is really the exception, not the norm.

I don’t have any objections to editing after the fact, though if it’s a major edit, I do try to note it somewhere on the post. And I don’t have any objections to back-dating content. Sometimes I don’t get round to writing about something until a little while after it happens, but the chronology is important to me.

Do you have an ideal creative environment? Also do you believe the physical space influences your creativity?

I’m not sure… I do believe that physical space influences creativity, quite a bit in many cases. And I don’t really listen to music or anything when I’m writing, I get too distracted by the music. The only exceptions to this are wordless albums that I know inside and out, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons recomposed by Max Richter.

My biggest hurdle right now is time, and giving my blog the priority that it probably deserves. I went from working independently to working in house for the first time back in early 2022 and my publishing took a bit of a hit at that point. It’s interesting, what is the balance? Writing on my site is really part of my practice both as an engineer and as a human being, since it is so essential to my learning and memory. But if I were to publish something “on the clock”, I felt like it could be perceived as me not doing my job properly. Which honestly, would probably never have been a problem at the company I was at. But I imagine some other managers might look at it that way! It’s tricky. At the moment I theoretically have all the time in the world to write, but I struggle to prioritize it since I feel like I should be doing other things, like reaching out to hiring managers, or finishing the side project that Sam and I are working on. I don’t know, it’s just a tricky line to toe when you have a dependent and simply have less time to play with.

So because of that time crunch, I honestly end up writing and publishing from all over the place and on all sorts of devices.

A question for the techie readers: can you run us through your tech stack?

I’ve covered a bit about the CMS above (started on Tumblr, moved to WordPress, am curious about other options but WordPress is just too good a fit for me).

In terms of the hosting, I was with NearlyFreeSpeech for years and years until just a few weeks ago. I was doing a lot less with my site because I was behind on some server admin I needed to do on NFSN, and that made me realize that I just don’t have time for the server admin anymore. It’s something I used to enjoy, but it’s not the reason I have my blog. So I moved to Flywheel on the suggestion of a lovely internet acquaintance and have been extremely impressed with them so far, especially with their support as I’ve tried to get my site set up on Mastodon.

The domain registration is actually owned by Sam! LOL, I need to get that moved to my own account.

Given your experience, if you were to start a blog today, would you do anything differently?

I don’t think so? Honestly I think I lucked out in a lot of ways. I lucked out with the whole “keep it private for a while” thing, it wasn’t deliberate but allowed me a lot of flexibility in reflection. And starting with Tumblr allowed me to start small, while WordPress has allowed me to make use of a heck of a lot of great blog-specific functionality.

I think I would have moved to managed WordPress hosting sooner, it has just reduced a lot of stress.

I would have kept child theming in mind from the get go when creating my current theme, since the idea of revising it for better child theming is a little daunting.

And I would never have bothered with analytics. I can see how it’s useful for some people who have a different purpose for their blog maybe, but it usually just introduced stress for me.

And I think I would have started my blog earlier. I didn’t realize just how useful it would be until a little while down the road, but my goodness, it is so great having a little slice of the web to yourself.

Financial question since the web is obsessed with money: how much does it cost to run your blog? Is it just a cost or does it generate some revenue? And what's your position on people monetising personal blogs?

I have zero problem with people monetizing their personal blogs, go wild! Whatever you’ve got to do.

For myself, I haven’t been tempted because it hasn’t cost me very much historically. I think it was less than $1.50 per month at NearlyFreeSpeech, and the domain registration was around $13 yearly.

It definitely costs me more now with managed hosting, but I don’t have to spend as much time maintaining it so it seems worth it. I’m on the Starter plan with Flywheel which is around $30/ mo. If I have to bump up a level… I might consider monetizing in some way. But I don’t know, it just changes the priorities a bit. I’ll have to weight it up if/when the time comes.

I do financially support a few other bloggers, but only via Substack at the moment. I would LOVE to both learn more about the web monetization API and support people through it though. If anyone wants to talk about this, please hit me up!

Time for some recommendations: any blog you think is worth checking out? And also, who do you think I should be interviewing next?

For sure!

Any of those people would be great interviewees, would love to know more about their relationships to their blogs.

And honestly I’m sure there are others… But my RSS reader is such a mess at the moment, it’s hard for me to find the ppl I most enjoy following. Yet another thing I need to tidy up!

Final question: is there anything you want to share with us?

I guess maybe just watch this space? I’m really excited about the project Sam and I are working on but am wary of sharing more just yet since it’s still in its infancy. But I’ll share on my site as soon as we can.

And since I’m no longer at SuperHi, I’m looking for opportunities to contribute to a like-minded team either as a contractor or in FTE. If you know of anything that might be a good fit, give me a buzz. There’s more about me and what I’m looking for on my site of course, but feel free to reach out to chat if you’d like to hear it from the horse’s mouth. I love talking to people.

Oh and maybe one final thing. My good friend Gemma Copeland introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” ages ago, and hardly a week goes by that I don’t refer to or mention it. It feels like an antidote, a salve, for some of the crappiest mindsets that consistently underpin the less savory things happening in the world. I’m so thankful that Gem introduced me to it, and though I feel like some sort of Evangelist with how often I mention it, I do feel like it’s essential reading for anyone living through the past two decades. You can read it in her excellent collection Dancing at the Edge of the World, or get it from Ignota Books in a lovely, slim, pocket-sized edition of just that essay.

Thanks for the opportunity to answer your questions (and for persevering with my extremely tardy reply!). It was fun reflecting. ♥️

This was the 11th edition of People and Blogs. Hope you enjoyed this interview with Piper. Make sure to follow her blog (RSS) and get in touch with her if you have any questions.

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