Corey Stephan, Ph.D.

Free & Open Source Software’s new minimal design (& my thanks to the Suckless folks for inspiration)

Corey Stephan

Although I cannot endorse the hostile tone of the folks who participate in the Suckless project (“Software that Sucks Less” inasmuch as it is both free and open source and as minimal as possible while functioning as intended), I am grateful for their work. Like many GNU/Linux aficionados, I use the “Stuff that rocks” list on the Suckless website to help me find lightweight free and open source software. I currently use the Suckless team’s own dmenu both in the Manjaro i3 installation on my desktop and my custom (from scratch) installation of Debian with spectrwm on my laptop (a project to be explained in another post). dmenu is an exemplar of the first point of the so-called Unix Philosophy: one package does one thing (in this case, launching applications), and it does that one thing well.

In addition, Suckless is to thank for the overhauled design of this website (as of two weeks ago). Since the Suckless folks’ webpage titled “The Web Sucks” contains foul language, I will not link to it. Instead, it will suffice for me to note that they bluntly denounce the clutter and sluggishness that have become normal for modern websites. Javascript, images, video files, and complicated layouts abound, despite the fact that many (if not most) websites do not contain anything that cannot be communicated in plain text. For example, college websites tout large, colorful graphics with statistics (about enrollment, test scores, graduation rates, etc.), but bullet lists could communicate the same information more effectively.

After reading “The Web Sucks,” I realized that my own website, although modest, had bloat:

  1. The theme that I chose used multiple colors, borders, and other unnecessary design elements. Its layout caused issues in command-line interface (CLI) web browsers like Links and ultralight graphical user interface (GUI) web browsers like Dillo (both of which I use). More seriously, those parts of the website made the standard accessibility options for individuals who are visually impaired, such as inverted colors and enlarged text, awkward.
  2. For the Contact Form, I used Google’s newest version of Recaptcha, which is a sitewide third-party tracker.
  3. The site’s body text was produced in a sans serif font that was not impeccably legible.
  4. I could not change the font or any other part of the site’s design, since options to modify the WordPress theme that I had chosen were locked behind a (steep) paywall.
  5. Even with a blazing client-side web connection, the home page took several seconds to load in Firefox and other full-size web browsers. Since is hosted on a premium server with solid state storage, high bandwidth, and other modern features, its sluggishness was caused by #1 and #2.

Overall, when I first created, I chose form over function. The lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic provided the opportunity for me to move to a layout with functionality taking pride of place.

I do not claim to have a sophisticated vision of effective web design. Yet I can say, against those five problems, that a decent website:

  1. has a simple layout that can be rendered in a variety of web browsers and is accessible for persons with visual impairments
  2. does not contain any trackers (first- or third-party) and displays either zero advertisements or only advertisements that are unobtrusive and secure
  3. uses plainly legible fonts
  4. can be modified by its webmaster without difficulty
  5. loads instantly for most clients

Although WordPress is heavy, I did not abandon it for some other website creation tool (e.g. Hugo or another static website generator). WordPress handles a number of things efficiently, and I find plugins like Really Simple SSL and Polylang to be helpful. Moreover, I already had everything configured with WordPress, and my time is limited. Thus, I opted to move to a new theme within WordPress. I experimented with several themes from GitHub and before deciding to use Super Minimal.

I only had to modify a few lines of CSS to have Super Minimal look and behave how I wanted. This website displays text (and almost exclusively text), and Super Minimal handles text with aplomb. It defaults to a free and open source, legible serif font that I would be pleased to use in a research paper, “Gentium Book Basic.”

Next, I abandoned Google’s Recaptcha in favor of a more secure and lightweight anti-robot option for the Contact Form. A prompt to fill in the blank for a standard Christian turn of phrase ought to work, especially given the various other security protocols that I have in place. The Simple Basic Contact Form does everything that I need.

Finally, I reworked the message that displays on the home page and made some other subtle changes to the site’s content.

At last, I had remedied the problems that I listed above:

  1. Links and Dillo render the website’s layout well. The site looks fine in inverted colors and with the font size increased. In sum, is accessible, both for persons who use lightweight web browsers and for persons who are visually impaired.
  2. is now free of any trackers or otherwise insecure content. It passes Firefox’s strictest security and privacy settings, Adblock Plus, and Privacy Badger without producing a single notice.
  3. All text on the site defaults to a highly legible font. If Gentium is not available on a particular device, the CSS triggers the client to use another serif font.
  4. Super Minimal is a customizable WordPress theme with open CSS editing. It is so customizable, in fact, that it is more of a template than a normal theme.
  5. Because of #1 and #2, now loads instantly in any up-to-date web browser (Firefox, Links, Dillo, etc.) from any device with a decent Internet connection.

I suppose that I can take pride in helping make the web less unruly, albeit in a small, small way. Thank you, Suckless folks, for the inspiration.

Deus vos benedicat,
Corey Stephan


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