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All Going a Bit Pearshaped…

Image credits: Pearshaped Exeter
Image credits: Pearshaped Exeter

Jack Reid writes about his experiences starting music-review site PearShaped with a few close friends, and the IT nightmares that soon followed…

Pearshaped Exeter is a student run service that produces high quality music journalism and does everything it can to promote live music in Exeter. This is the story of how I went from having no idea, to building the website we have today.

In the courtyard of Timepiece at some point in January 2013, a few friends and I were rambling on about doing something musical in Exeter, something to connect people. The conversation was tied off with something like ‘We should totally do it!’, and then ‘I’m in. Drink?’ The idea floated around a little bit without coming to anything significant for a fortnight or so. Then, a meeting was convened in the Rusty Bike. ‘Let’s actually do this.’ I was assigned to do all things technological and graphical, and before I knew it I was registering the name we had agreed on five minutes before without even a logo, PearShaped Exeter, to Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, everything. I’d been using Photoshop for years and figured I’d come up with some sort of logo, somehow…

I sat down with a cup of tea and opened Photoshop, a blank canvas laughing at me. I tried a little square icon with the letters ‘P’ and ‘S’ in Helvetica. Everything looks good in Helvetica I told myself. It didn’t look good, it looked completely indistinct. At the same time, in our new Facebook group, we were asking each other what this thing was even going to be. We would provide the best listings around, we said, and make sure that nobody ever misses any good music in Exeter. We knew so many talented and passionate writers; we would get them all to contribute. At my computer screen, I was reading an article about how Wes Anderson always uses Futura in his films. I thought, I kind of like it too.

I had a logo. I had a colour (which has come to be known as ‘PearShaped Green’). Next, I registered a Tumblr. Tumblr has a reputation these days for being the perfect location for angst-y self-designated artists and hipsters to post their favourite pictures of triangles. However it’s also a free hosting service and content management system if you jump through some hoops. To design a Tumblr, you design a theme. There was no way I knew how to do that from scratch so I got the code from a theme that looked something like what I wanted. I opened it in a text editor and screamed internally. You know those scenes in CSI where they hack into somebody’s laptop and random letters scroll down the screen?

After a week of frantic googling and swearing, we had a passable website. The black background evoked nightlife, exclusivity, and fun. Navigation was simple, four sections for content and an About Us page. We were getting our first pieces of content through, all written between the four of us. An illustrator that we know had drawn us a page full of pears and I was scattering them across the images on the site. Things were coming together on the website, but I still wasn’t happy with it.

Summer came and the staff of PearShaped Exeter grew. My girlfriend came on board to become our Editor. I had been both designing the website and filling it with content, and things were moving too slowly with just me doing that alongside everything else. Lizzie had been watching me code for months by now, and could fairly confidently put an article together without any guidance. She told me that it was quite hard to read articles on the site; the column of text was too narrow and it’s hard to read white on black. I told her to get lost, that it looked really edgy. Then a few weeks later I showed my Mum the website; “it’s a bit hard to read”, she said. I flipped all the colours around and widened the column slightly, and to my great displeasure it was indeed far easier to read. I reluctantly took a series of pointers on the website, and it got better but it still wasn’t good enough. I wanted something like a magazine, something that would really make people want to read our content.

Lizzie and I were sketching wireframes in a square ruled notebook, and I decided to start the whole website again. I would use a framework to build the site up from the bottom. I had learned enough about the HTML structure of a Tumblr theme at that point to write one from scratch, and that way I wouldn’t keep finding things I didn’t know the purpose of in the code. I realised that I could break the content up into columns, we could have sidebars with videos and players, we could have fancy headers and headlines to break things up. We could have a homepage with a slideshow, to really show off what our contributors had been doing. Our new navigation would allow more sections on the website, and it looked pretty good too.

Freshers’ week rolled around. We were roping in people to write for us as quickly as we could and the content was coming in thick and fast. I was checking our analytics every day, waiting for a spike and getting far too excited when I saw the numbers move. I was designing flyers and posters to advertise our service to the people of Exeter. We had decided to hold a live music event, just like the ones we wanted to promote. I made the poster with love and care, and we ordered only twenty posters in luxuriously high quality. Though they were collectors’ items, we never did that again. I was taking time out of my web development time to hang around pubs and sell tickets. People were actually turning up and buying the things, and the staff all smiled at each other for our dumb luck. We’re pulling this off, we thought incredulously.

Our launch event was the perfect opportunity for me to fish for opinions from the general public about the website. The compliments were abundant and unexpected. Whenever you make something for the public to see, it’s only the problems yet to solve that you see (that spacing looks unnatural, you can break the navigation menu if you do this thing, etc.). It was a relief to see that people didn’t laugh at my attempts to appear adept at something so exposed. Words like ‘professional’ were thrown around. I went away with a sense of incredulity that I’m beginning to associate with whenever PearShaped Exeter doesn’t fail spectacularly.

We’re coming up to our Christmas event now, and I’ve been Photoshopping Santa hats onto drawings of pears and making heavy use of red and green. We’re quickly expanding: we have dozens of writers who produce incredible articles, and passionate staff members who agree with our message and want to spread it. When I walk around campus now, I see the logo that I made on posters and flyers, and I see the URL that I registered not that long ago. I am often recognised with the question, ‘Oh, you’re PearShaped right?’ A few short months ago, that would have been completely non-sensical or even insulting. Now, we have a visual identity and a presence in the city.

It’s been an absolutely astonishing ride so far, and it looks like the website has actually helped what we want to do, which is a great feeling. When I sat down with trepidation in front of a text editor back in January, I never thought I could make the product that we have now. I’ve learnt the pieces as I’ve gone; I read web design blogs now. I never considered that I could ever be a ‘productive’ or ‘busy’ person, and it just goes to show that all anybody needs is the right project, the right spark to get them going. Never let anybody tell you that you can’t just learn something because you have to, to do what you want to do.

Jack Reid

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