The Write Stuff: Paragraph

ParagraphIt was always a mystery to me why people spend so much time hanging out at Starbucks. Notwithstanding the fallacious reality of sitcoms in which beautiful people spend all day cracking wise at their local coffee houses, the idea of committing more than thirty minutes to a visit to any retail outlet is a real stretch for me. That is, until I moved to New York seven years ago and discovered that the apartments here are tiny and, inconveniently, they often come with roommates. In this city, if you want to get any kind of concentrating done without all of the distractions of your television or personal possessions — and you want to do it away from the close quarters you share with your roommate, you need to escape your home. This is rarely truer than if you are a writer, someone who requires a certain reliable quietude in order to produce to the capacity of your creative prowess.

Which is exactly the reason why my girlfriend and a friend she met in graduate school started Paragraph, a so-called “workspace for writers.” It’s a quiet, spacious retreat from everything competing for a writer’s attention, located close to Union Square on Fourteenth Street in Manhattan.

This is no ‘online venture’ started as a low-risk lark; it’s a serious enterprise started by two serious entrepreneurs and it’s for real. Paragraph is an honest-to-goodness, bricks and mortar business that Joy and Lila financed with their own hard won savings, and, having been in business for about a week now, it’s open and available for you to walk in and see it with your own eyes. Before you go and see it — which you should — you can also head over to find out more at the Web site that I designed.

Significant Others as Clients

If you’ve never had the experience, there are few things weirder than having the person you live with as a client, which was the case when I designed the Paragraph identity and Web site. You may think you’ve had some demanding client experiences, but it’s something else entirely when you’re asked if you should really be watching that ball game when you could be working on the new comps you promised instead.

This unorthodox situation probably accounts for the fact that I more or less completely sidestepped the formal, methodical design process that we employ at Behavior for this project. Everything here was done quickly and with frequent and sometimes uncomfortably immediate review by my girlfriend, but it has a personal, intimate quality that I’m proud of. I tend to be rather cold and spartan in design style, and she really insisted on a much warmer approach than I was used to. The end result is a nice balance, I think, between the two sensibilities, but moreover, I think it represents my emotional stake in the project — not to dispel my commitment to other clients, but when you see your girlfriend break her back to get a new business up and running, it inspires you to put a little something extra into the design.

Above: Space is the place. A page from the Web site for my girlfriend’s new business.

Design Notes

Aside from that personal investment, the site represents some breakthroughs for me in terms of my meager coding skills. I’ve created sites that validate XHTML Strict 1.0 before, but this time out, the style sheets and markup are cleaner than I’ve ever managed in the past. I’m also employing sIFR in the headlines, having picked up some tricks on its implementation after the work that we did at Behavior on The Onion redesign. I also took some rudimentary PHP knowledge I’ve picked up and put it to use pushing style sheets contextually, which may not impress most folks but was a lot of fun for me. There’s also a bit of PHP trickery involved in getting Movable Type to publish clean, extension-less URLs — a futile triumph, I know, because apparently the latest version of that software includes this feature out of the box. Still, I was impressed with myself. And, last but not least, the application form is a personal best in my ongoing battle to design good-looking Web forms.

There’s at least a mildly interesting story about the layout of the site that I hope to tell in another weblog post, but for now, I don’t want to draw too much attention away from Paragraph itself. If you’re in the New York area, you should really stop by for a look (the space is open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week to members, but prospective customers should call on them during business hours for a tour or just a quick peek). It’s worth a visit to see what two determined people can do with a little bit of savings and a lot of hard work. When they first leased the space it was just an empty box, but Joy and Lila worked their asses off to turn it into something really beautiful; they were down on their hands and knees scrubbing the floors — that’s how much care and attention went into it. Go see for yourself.

  1. I wonder if it’s just me, but sIFR type, especially the American Typewriter on the Paragraph site, bleeds a lot on my screen, looking much bolder/fuzzier than what I see in your screenshot here in the blog. Local setting? Will improve with Flash 8 which has better type rendering?

  2. Very nice use of position:fixed, that really caught be off-gaurd. I like the idea of creating a space for people to focus and it’s away from their local (I hope!) coffee shop.

  3. It would be lovely to have something like that in London – I don’t want a desk in my flat, because a) I don’t want to work at home, 2) I prefer to use the space for table football, so it would be great to have somewhere where I can take my powerbook, maybe plug it into a provided Keyboard/Mouse/Monitor and sit in a nice, creative atmosphere to get some personal/freelance work done…

    Great idea and gorgous site.

  4. congrats to you and joy on the new venture!! it’s a great idea.. kind of a writer’s library space. now if i ever get off my butt and start writing again, i may need someplace like this. my apartment is just too distracting.

  5. The site looks nice! But this isn’tabout the site — the business itself seems to be original, and in demand — which of course are the keys to success in business. GOOD LUCK! Looks good, hope you both make millions.

  6. Khoi, why the decision to use sIFR? The text typeface looks like it’s the same as the flash-replaced headlines. I don’t see how it adds much to the design (which is great BTW) – was it worth the extra effort and complexity to you?

  7. Allan: If you’re on a Mac (as I suspect you are), you’ll see American Typewriter in the body (that text is specified in the CSS, and not by sIFR) because it’s a part of Mac OS X’s far richer complement of available system fonts. So it may be puzzling for you to see some text controlled by sIFR and some not, because they look basically the same.

    However, for people who don’t have systems with American Typewriter as part of the default installation, the body text will appear as Arial. So I decided to use sIFR in the headers so that, at least, the headlines will appear consistently across most all platforms. The alternative was to render the text in Arial or Georgia — that wouldn’t have been a disaster, but it was a plus to be able to control the brand a bit with sIFR.

  8. Jonah: theOffice is similar, but for Paragraph, the key difference is that it’s for writers only, which helps ensure a very quiet working environment. Paragraph is also open 24 hours a day, convenient for writers who work at odd hours.

  9. Very nice Khoi. By the way, if you’re so inclined, you can tweak the sIFR initialization so that it doesn’t fire on Macs. All of your OS 9 users wouldn’t get the nice headlines, but meh, who cares.

    Here would be the new line:

    if(typeof sIFR == “function” && navigator.userAgent.toLowerCase().indexOf(“mac” == -1)

  10. Khoi –

    Nice site and great idea. The actual space looks very conducive to writing and learning. I think we could all use a quiet space like that from time to time. Good luck with it and tell Joy good luck as well.

  11. theOffice is similar, but it does let anyone in and no references required. I am curious how the membership plan will work out, I would think that it would be a limited market? Best of luck!

  12. The web site is just lovely! I like the air around the body text and sharp typography. Anything but the American Typewriter, would be a miss, here.

    Can’t wait to see business expands, and your first shop here in Croatia.

  13. On the subject of forms, why are we still using asterisks to mark required fields and note extra details?

    For required fields, bolding or coloring them red is nice. Nicer still is simply having “required” next to required fields.

    And for the “extra details” style asterisks, shouldn’t that be a hyperlink at the very least?

  14. I’ll just have to agree with Ben and Jared – I just whish there was a bigger market for such a thing in Norway, and I’d start something JUST like it here… 😉 Amazing how similar this is to all I’ve deamt of for so long…

    Wonder if it’s worth moving to NYC for…?

  15. Nice. Love the favicon.

    Re: forms, Luke Wroblewski has written interestingly on form design.

    If you’ve never had the experience, there are few things weirder than having the person you live with as a client

    I hear you! One of my clients lives in my building. It’s…an interesting experience.

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