Back in May of 2020, I started a visual website for hosting some of my photography work. After a year of experimentation, my publishing frequency slowly came to a halt. Why? Is it because of the lack of interest from other readers? Is it because of the publishing process which was a bit awkward on a publishing platform not really meant for photographers? Maybe I just lost interest in the platform. I don’t know. The following is the article I originally published explaining my experiment. Maybe I’ll return to sharing this type of visual content when Instagram, Flickr or 500px alternatives become available. I’m thinking about Glass or Bokeh. There are long in coming to life.
I’m starting something new. I’m opening a new visual space. Thanks to Universe, a simple yet surprisingly powerful website creation service, I’m introducing Numeric Citizen Visual Space. Read on to find out what this is all about.
I’ve been looking for a long time to showcase my “Perfect Imperfections” photo series. In the past few months, I tried WordPress and Ghost, but for pictures, I’m not happy with the experience; there is too much friction while using these services. I’m not pleased about Adobe Portfolio either because of the lack of design flexibility, which would allow me to build something unique. I left Flickr a long time ago, because, you know. 500px is an excellent generic photo-sharing platform, but nothing more. Unexpectedly, Universe opened up a big enough sandbox where I can experiment and build a visual space the serves my intentions.
I came across Universe a few months ago but I didn’t get it at that time. Now, oh boy I do. I think I found the right place. Universe is an enabler to my creative expression, the way I want to experience the publishing process: quickly with enough flexibility. Compared to WordPress or Ghost, Universe offers the most streamlined publishing experience.
How does it work?
The experience of putting together my website with Universe reminds me, in a sense, of what Instagram used to be. This feeling echos a review of Universe by TechCrunch. I like this a lot.
The basic design canvas is a matrix of 1×1 blocks. By default, the matrix is a three-blocks wide space that can be increased up to five-blocks for finer design resolution of the page content. My website is built using a four-blocks wide design.
A block can be anything from text, photo, video, button, gallery, link, map, YouTube, Vimeo, etc. Some blocks can be created from a template, facilitating the experience. Sadly, photos cannot be repositioned within the defined space, they can only be enlarged or reduced by moving the frame corners to change the dimension on the canvas. Consider this on my improvements wish list.
There are many templates available to create websites and pages. For example, my website is created using the blog page type. Each post is just sub-pages that can be of any type. I’m also using an about page to show people where they can find me. The website layouts are optimized for portrait mode as shown below. Remember, Universe is for people using mobile devices to built websites for mobile devices.
While browsing the “made with Universe” gallery, you get a feeling these websites have something in common. At first, I thought it was because of some limitations with Universe design tools. Well, it is not the case at all. There is a good selection of visual attributes for many block types. For example, text blocks have a background colour and text colour, text alignment, font size and font type. There is a long list of fonts you can choose from. Speaking of font selection, I found a font that looks exactly like the one I’m using with Snapseed to create pictures in the Perfect Imperfections Series. Finally, you can assign an action to the block like opening a page within the site or a link to an external website.
Universe publishing tools are only available on Apple mobile devices. There is nothing we can do on the web to manage or make changes to the website content. It is a stark contrast to Ghost which is the opposite. But I think it fits perfectly with the targeted users who don’t necessarily have a computer.
Finally, Universe provides support for custom domain, newsletter and electronic payments just to name a few complementary features to help build small storefronts with communities around products or services.
A lot to love
Universe is an unexpected but delightful surprise in itself. My visual space was ready to go online after a few hours of experimentation. I consider this to be fast as the final results are quite satisfactory to me. I feel it is unique and appealing. The iPad application is really a joy to use because of its singular design and behaviour. While experimenting, I asked a few support questions that were promptly answered with honest and clear information, all within the application.
A few things that need improvement
As you might expect, there is always room for improvement. Universe is no exception. From a photography perspective, since this visual space is all about sharing pictures, there is a few things that really need to be addressed.
Support for basic iOS features is lacking. First, the share sheet should be added. It is a glaring omission. Next, On iPadOS, drag and drop is not supported. Dragging a picture from Apple’s Photos to Universe is not yet possible. Speaking of pictures, when inserting one onto the matrix, the album list from Photos is not sorted which makes it tedious to scroll down to find the album containing the photo to insert. Then, once inserted, we cannot move the picture within its boundaries to reframe it. It is something we have to do before importing the picture within Universe. Also, we can only increase or decrease how many blocks a picture will fit in. Finally, on the photography subject, an Unsplash integration would be really useful.
Engagement analytics are minimalistic compared to other platforms. Views per week are the only available statistic. Also missing is a cross-posting of content between Universe and other social networks. It’s a glaring omission for a platform targeted at a demographic highly engaged on those social networks.
Payment support via Apple Pay is not yet available in Canada which is too bad but PayPal is supported. Supporting Apple Pay would be a great way to ask for a tip with the least friction possible, enabling impulsive tipping.
While editing content, the application provides audio feedback. It is funny at first but can become annoying during long edit sessions. There should be a way to turn off this feature.
It is clear to me Universe is designed for people looking for a quick yet pleasing publishing platform. I’m one of them. Don’t be deceived by what is shown on the application’s App Store page or on Universe website. Universe is capable of much more in order to help you express your imagination and creativity.
Numeric Citizen Visual Space is a one-year experiment, the length of my subscription. It’s not cheap but it is fun. Universe is an enabler for my creativity and I like it a lot. I can’t wait to see how this service will evolve over the coming year.