2021 Wrap Up

I’ve downed tools for another year so thought I’d pull together a wrap up of the year. For me this year has been harder than 2020 which I find bizarre. Maybe it is the expectation that things would be more normal when in reality we were in lockdown until March and things are still not there and with the latest variant of Covid I can’t see things improving anytime soon. 2021 has pretty much been a case of business of usual. I’ve certainly not had a chance to pause (not a good thing) until now but when I look back, I’ve worked on some fun and big projects that I’m chuffed with. Though along the way my mental health hasn’t been ideal – finding a healthy work life balance as a business owner certainly seems to be impossible. Though equally it is easy to forget we are still living through a global pandemic!

📈🏡 Business & working from Home #

We both continued to work from home throughout the 2021. In June we also fully moved out of our office share after ten plus years. My frustrations with working from home grew. I’m not a fan. My biggest issue here is loneliness especially when you live by yourself. Not seeing anyone all week and staring at the same four walls is depressing there is no doubt about it. Having someone to talk to not just the random shit you talk about in the office but for times when you get stuck, to bounce ideas off, “rubber ducking” my code issue is something I really miss.

Adding to that working as a solo developer adds an extra layer of complexity for my mental health. When I get stuck (which happens regularly) there is no one to reach out to and it can be a truly lonely and frustrating place to be. Google and Stack overflow aren’t the most enjoyable places to spend your time, especially when the 1st two pages of links on Google are purple. There is also no one tell you are doing a good job!

The downside is that I tend use Twitter as my only outlet and as a result my feed ends up showing my frustrations. I’m aware that this then might also come across that I’m unprofessional and don’t know what I am doing (I’m pretty good really 🎺). I guess as well as being an outlet and a means of getting support, I want to show the difficulties that web development poses and that things aren’t always as straight forward as they appear. Maybe I need to find more of a balance and tweet more of my successes.

Development seems to get harder as I get older/more experienced. In my head I feel like it should be getting easier but that simply isn’t the case. I’m not sure if it’s working from home, or just that web development is always going to be hard there is always something new to learn. But in my head things shouldn’t be as hard as they are after all I’ve been doing this stuff for 20 plus years. It’s not really imposter syndrome, it’s frustrations in my abilities more than anything.

In February we took the decision to change accountants, mainly because we felt we needed a fresh set of eyes to look over things and give us some fresh ideas. We also finally got to the end of our printer lease which was carried over from the previous company – I’m certainly glad to get this off the overheads!

I’ve also been researching the best way we can improve our current I.T infrastructure our current VPN setup just isn’t fast enough and the technology behind it is now a good five plus years old. I’m pretty sure we’ll go down the Synology NAS route. If it wasn’t for InDesign’s linked files things would be straight forward but that is adding a layer of complexity. I’m not sure how to get over.

🤯🧠 Burnout #


Photo by nikko macaspac

I’ve not taken enough breaks this year and this has certainly caught up with especially in the last couple of weeks before Christmas I was really struggling. I’ve taken days off but most of these have been for drag racing so mainly long weekend with no real time to myself or time for relaxing. Don’t get me wrong I love my time racing but it’s not proper time off. I also cancelled a week’s holiday in September to get some projects over the line with “deadlines” – the reality was they only went live last week. I think my lack of breaks coupled with working from my home made for a bad combination. I must try to take more time for myself next year (though the guilt of taking time of always plays on my mind).

👨‍💻 The industry #

The industry seems to be in a strange place – it has been for a while now. It has certainly changed so much from when I first started back in 2006. Back then if you wanted a web site built you needed to reach out for a web designer/developer to do the job for you. With the rise of site builders offered by cheap web hosts and tools like Squarespace, Shopify, Webflow, Weebly this isn’t the case anymore. Don’t get me wrong these tools serve a purpose but with their rise comes the expectation from clients that things are “drag and drop easy” and can be done with a click of a button.

With the above in mind, we can no longer compete for the smaller website brochure sites that we used to. Many people are doing this themselves or can find someone to do this way cheaper than we could. When you quote anything upwards of £2000 they run a mile – people want everything cheap and I don’t believe the more technical side of the industry is appreciated or understood.

After two years of the Covid pandemic we certainly seem to be doing a lot less in terms of traditional design & print. I can only assume this is due to marketing budgets being the first to be cut, loss of exhibitions and in person events, reduced business start-ups. I’m hopeful that this will one day pick up again should we ever get back to some normality.

As someone that has dedicated their professional life to learning and appreciating great design it frustrates me that I now see more bad design in the world than good. It might just be that bad design stands out to me, but it certainly seems more and more people are pulling design assets together themselves; this not only sees us getting less work but seemingly fills the world with bad design.

Apologies if that came across as a bit of a rant, it’s more an observation and a reality check that we certainly need to pivot and evolve as the industry changes.

🏋️‍♀️ What have I been working on? #

Eat, Sleep, Code, Repeat

Photo by Roman Synkevych

As mentioned above we can’t compete for simple brochure sites anymore. What does seem to be working for us over the last couple of years is “white label” work for other agencies who might not have web developers in house or who might need more technical support. We are now doing work on behalf of three/four other agencies.

The list of projects below show my workload has once again been varied. I really enjoy the variety of work, however switching between different technologies can be hard and covering a lot of bases means I never really excel in one area. I’m always torn as if I should pick one thing and do it well or stick to covering all bases?

  • Ongoing Statamic/Laravel development & support for a local charity
  • Ongoing Laravel support & development – Bespoke e-commerce/business system. Developed complex Ebay integration stock sync between website and Ebay
  • Victoria Land redesign/built with Eleventy
  • Multiple single page/micro sites built with Eleventy
  • Multiple micro sites built with WordPress for large hotel chain
  • WordPress custom Elavon gateway integration – super, super frustrating more details here
  • Update of outdated WordPress theme to custom theme
  • Converted static bootstrap site to WordPress for custom RSVP form integration
  • Various HTML email builds and campaign management
  • Shopify Theme development
  • Website redesign design/build with WordPress.
  • Rewrote/updated our internal job system to Laravel 8
  • WordPress support/updates for various clients

👨‍🔧 Technology #

Tech stack wise I’ve stuck to what I know WordPress/Laravel/ Vue/PHP/Javascript/ /HTML/CSS. I find the a solid understanding of the above skills still gives me a solid base to work from and gets jobs done. Technical notes from 2021:

  • WordPress + ACF + Gutenberg: WordPress remains my CMS choice. With Advanced Custom Fields I find I can build pretty much anything. Most of the time the plugins I need don’t do exactly what I want, and I find ACF + custom code is a much better fit to create exactly the functionality I want for a project. I did come across issues with a site that had complex relationships of data earlier in the year (hotels/cities/offers) WordPress did do the job, but I think a proper database would have handled things better. I’m also of the opinion that after three years of development Gutenberg is finally starting to become a useful and workable tool. I can pull together a theme header/footer and the main page content can be populated/designed with Gutenberg. I still have some frustrations with the CSS it offers out of the box. I briefly looked at Full site editing which looks interesting I’ll certainly be looking at this more in 2022.
  • HTML emails: Before E.U GDPR laws were introduced in 2016 we used to work on lots of HTML email campaigns, when the laws were introduced this area of the business took a steep dive. This year however we seemed to pick up more work in this area. Honestly these are still the most the frustrating things to build, requiring a whole different skill set to modern front-end development.
  • Eleventy: I am finding myself using this more and more especially for small sites where the customer is likely to never update or is happy for us to handle. This a fantastic tool which I really enjoy working with. It was certainly really useful for creating x30 variant HTML emails with different content per variant.
  • CSS Utility classes/Tailwind: As part of our job system rebuild, I gave Tailwind another try. It’s not something I will be reaching for again I don’t get on with it. I also found it slow to compile (though I realise this may be down to my setup/understanding). That said I’ve started to roll-out some utility classes that make my development easier. I find the following “sprinkle” of utility classes covers a lot of bases; vertical spacing, typography, colours). I then roll out my own CSS for the layout/components required for the site in question.
  • Shopify Theme Development: I took on my first Shopify project; updating an existing site which was using a poorly designed custom theme and create something more modern. I used https://github.com/Shopify/dawn as the base theme and made changes as required, all pretty straightforward HTML/CSS/Javascript/Liquid. It was very much a learn on job type project but once I got my head into it, I enjoyed working with Shopify. I’d certainly like to give their API stuff a try at some point. More documentation on theme development here: https://shopify.dev/themes/tools/dawn
  • DeployHq: For deploying Eleventy projects to our own server I’ve been using DeployHq which again was big learning exercise having used plain old SFTP for year. I really need to get my head around using this for WordPress projects at some point. I probably need to get better at using Git first.
  • Github: Now they offer free private repos I’ve started using Github for source control after using Bitbucket for many years.
  • MAMP/Homestead to Laravel Valet: After years of using MAMP and after reinstalling my MacBook I took the decision to move to Valet for my local development. It’s certainly a lot easier to get up and running and things are super-fast. One example certain MySQL import used to taken 10 +minutes on homestead they are now < 30 seconds on Valet.
  • Updated our server/migrated 90% of our hosted clients: The other 10% are dragging their feet in updating DNS records (super frustrating). I really want to decommission our old server and save us some £ a month.
  • Content - Not really a technical note more of an observation. I've been saying it for years but for a website to work it needs content and the thing that is holding up nearly every site build is not the development – it is the content. Getting the right content from a client seems to be super frustrating, maybe they aren't the right people for providing content?

📸 Photography #


Towards the end of the year I’ve started to pick up my camera and get back into photography more and I am really enjoying it! I’ve recently purchased a new lens 24 – 120 f/4 which I’m pleased with, it seems to be a nice all-rounder.

I’ve also just hired a 70 – 200 f/2.8 from Lensesforhire which has given some nice results but it’s heavy to be carrying around and I’m sure when I’d need that focal length as most of my stuff seems (and what I enjoy most) is street/landscape stuff. If anything, I think I’d be better with more focal length 🤷‍♂️ https://www.flickr.com/photos/richbell/albums/72157720240537433

Part of me would love to get in a position to offer this as a service but I’m not sure if I want to “commercialise” this aspect of my life or keep this to a hobby. Also imposter syndrome puts me very in the category I’m not good enough. Everyone is a “photographer” nowadays plus the world is awash with photos so it’s extremely hard to stand out and get those “wow” photos. Though I do get satisfaction that all my photos are shot in manual mode, and I enjoy the whole process so who cares. You’ll find a selection of my best shots on:

🏎 Personal Life #

2020 saw my return to drag racing and 2021 was much the same. Crewing on dad’s 66’ Chevy Nova with Lee Huxley driving saw us win the 2021 Pro E.T championship. The Nova is now with a new owner, but it looks like I’ll continue to crew for Lee next season. More details can be seen on eurodragster.com – Three Huxley’s one class: http://eurodragster.com/news/news.asp?Story=december07#december07

After two years of avoiding Covid I finally managed to test positive – thankfully my symptoms were mild the only giveaway was losing my taste.

I also had the privilege of performing shared best man duties at my friend’s wedding in Northern Ireland. It was lovely to get on a plane again and get a taste for travel again (spending a night/day in Belfast) and who doesn’t love a good wedding!

So that’s it for another year, I can’t believe June 2022 will see the end of our 6th financial year since taking over the reins. Let’s see what happens I can only hope that things will start to become a little easier, it certainly feels like I have a lots of things to be working on!

So if you think Maple Rock can help you with your project requirements in 2022 let me know – maplerockdesign.co.uk // @richard_bell