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Case Study: Browser History 2020 by Squarespace

Article by Awwwards in Web Design -

Last year was a famously bad year as we all know it. Yet people did some pretty incredible things and managed to launch businesses against all odds. These are things that would be difficult enough under ideal conditions, but became almost heroic given everything else going on in the world that they had to push through.

At Squarespace, we wanted to celebrate these people with a new annual series called “Browser History,” highlighting some inspiring customers who used our platform to make their dreams a reality. To capture their inspiring stories, we partnered up with artist and illustrator Ignasi Monreal, who reimagined these resilient business owners and creators as renaissance heroes, but with a modern twist.

The online exhibition

The main part of the campaign is the online exhibition that functions as an immersive museum for the incredible portraits that Ignasi created. The site is part of a wider campaign that also includes animated films and social assets. For each portrait, we really wanted the customers and their businesses to be front and center, portrayed like the great renaissance heroes, the likes of Napoleon Returning from Elba. 

To bring this narrative to life digitally, we wanted to invite users to virtually fly through each portrait and dive deeper into each of the paintings and the stories of our customers. There are also plenty of subtle notes to 2020, like the UFOs buzzing the New York City skyline behind Richaud or Tia Adeola’s high fashion face masks.

The Z-axis fly through was the main “wow factor” on the site.

Designing an immersive experience

The central navigation feature on the site is the Z-axis infinite scroll that flies users through the experience and all six artworks, each with its own mood and visual atmosphere with nods to our customers’ craft or business. When entering the exhibition, we wanted to build up excitement around the experience, make sure the transitions were smooth, and that the site performance wasn’t compromised on any device. The team agreed early on that the experience had to work flawlessly on both mobile and desktop, therefore we knew we needed a lot of testing and prototyping, ensuring we were building the site from mobile up.

Browser History 2020 by Squarespace
From the sketch to the final portrait, we collaborated closely with Ignasi to make sure each illustration was created in a way we can maximize the use of them on both the videos and on the microsite.

Collaborating closely with Ignasi helped our design and development team make sure each portrait had enough detail and resolution to be scaled up for the zoom-effect on the microsite. Once Ignasi finalized the portraits, our design team then took each portrait and sliced each part of them for our development team to animate and create the zoom effect, while simultaneously optimizing them all for performance. This meant that each small cloud, piece of fabric, etc., had multiple versions of them to be used for different breakpoints which, in the end, resulted in hundreds of assets.

Browser History 2020 by Squarespace
Each asset on the site ended up having multiple versions for optimization purposes.

After breaking up all the portraits into smaller pieces, our motion designer then started visualizing and animating all the transitions and interactions to help us streamline them all for the web. We used Lottie to export all the animations since it’s able to parse and export After Effects animations as json, and then render them natively on mobile and on the web.

A set of animated assets created for the microsite.

The technology behind it all

We knew that the effect of flying through a continuous 3D space was going to be the real "wow factor" of this site, but it was also the biggest question mark for us, how exactly we were going to implement it? To tackle this, our design, motion and development team started to build prototypes using a series of web technologies we thought might help us get there. While the site is fully built on the Squarespace platform, we knew we’d have to use some additional libraries to implement the Z-axis zoom effect and all of the custom animations on the site, and eventually settled on using Pixi JS fairly early on for a fast and lightweight 2D WebGL renderer.

The transition from Pixi JS to a more traditional HTML site experience was one of the hurdles our developers faced while building the site.

Another hurdle our developers faced was how to easily share the application state between the Pixi JS canvas and the rest of the applications' HTML functionality. We also needed to find a way to seamlessly transition between the canvas experience back to the more traditional HTML site experience. Layering HTML elements on top of or behind the canvas element worked well for our needs, and we were able to share the global application state using React and React Pixi. Lastly, the detail pages and text animations really came together using Greensock, the web animation library that pairs well with Pixijs sprite animations, triggering certain animations on scroll using Greensocks ScrollTrigger.

The mouse-follow effect that users can see on each customer landing page was the final icing on the cake we decided to add only a couple days before the launch.

Final thoughts

What made this process smooth and seamless was the collaboration between our developers, designers, animators and of course, Ignasi. We all shared the same vision and worked closely with the same goal in mind, and our designers were helpful in coming up with elegant solutions that the technology would support.

Partnering with Ignasi—who mainly works digitally—enabled us to work with incredibly layered illustration files, which really helped us bring the whole campaign to life through delightful interactions, playful transitions, and mouse-follow-effects, while trying to avoid making the site a total bandwidth killer. We all feel like we ended up in a place where everything feels joyful and smooth, while supportive of the overall site experience.

About Squarespace

Squarespace empowers millions of dreamers, makers, and doers by providing them with the tools they need to bring their creative ideas to life. On Squarespace’s dynamic all-in-one platform, customers can claim a domain, build a website, sell online, and market a brand. Our suite of products combines cutting-edge design and world-class engineering, making it easier than ever to establish and own your online presence. Founded in 2003, Squarespace’s team of more than 1200 is headquartered in downtown NYC, with offices in Dublin and Portland. For more information, visit www.squarespace.com.

Microsite team:

Illustrator: Ignasi Monreal

VP of Creative: Ben Hughes

Creative Director: Satu Pelkonen

Design & Art Direction: Angela Milosevic & Pei Liew

Developers: Mike Manh & Kenny Crosby

Copywriter: Pepe Hernandez

Motion & Animation: Videl Torres

Producer: Katie Flynn