Jul 26, 2014


Hello world!

I had been meaning to create a personal website for some time now and it's finally here!

I've had this domain up and running a Ruby on Rails app hosted on Heroku, but it was more than what I needed for a personal site. I never got much further than making an alternate homepage for myself about my best friend. Finally, I had some convincing to really get the site going, thanks to Middleman. I was introduced to Middleman by a friend who had hung out with him before. I found out that Middleman helps you generate static sites via Ruby and the Sinatra web framework. After realizing that I could create a free custom static blog site with the help of Middleman and Github, I became close friends with Middleman. We are besties now.

Why Middleman?

  • Flexible - you can add whatever code/gems you want
  • Fast - well, he spits out HTML, CSS, and Javascript; is there anything faster?
  • Simple - it's fast because it's simple, no database or backend
  • Cheap - Middleman and his components are open source and you can host a static site somewhere like Github for free
  • Safe - since it's a static site there are fewer ways for someone to destroy it
  • Light - it doesn't give you that bloated feeling, it's just the right proportion
  • Familiar - that is if you've used Ruby on Rails or the like before
  • Ruby - seriously an awesome language, for scripting and building websites
  • Markdown - the blog add-in allows you to write all your articles in Markdown
  • Live Reload - save a file and the browser will automatically refresh with your changes, really useful when writing Markdown
  • Flexible Again - because you can use stuff like Haml, Sass, CoffeeScript etc. in any editor you want *cough Vim cough*

How He Conducts Business

Middleman is professional, clean cut and the coolest guy in the office. He runs on the light Sinatra and serves flat HTML rather than dynamic pages. You can write Ruby code to fill out your HTML files allowing less code to be written and more flexibility. Things like partials, templates, and helpers allow you to keep your site better organized. Then you just tell Middleman to build out your site to folders containing HTML, CSS, Javascript and images. The blogging feature is done via writing plain Markdown files with parameters. Middleman will turn them in HTML and put them where they need to go. If you have experience with Ruby on Rails then this will be a breeze.

How Do We Become Friends?

First you need to understand Ruby and RubyGems. Then you can start your relationship with Middleman by opening up Terminal. You will need you install the Middleman gem first. Then run a Middleman init to get a blog ready version of Middleman in the current directory. That's all the setup required, so you can start Middleman and navigate to http://localhost:4567.

gem install middleman
middleman init BLOGNAME --template=blog

From here you can see that Middleman provides you with an example article and a way to browse your articles by date and tag. This is your start page that will uses paginate to list all your blog articles. You can easily move the code in source/index.html.erb to something like source/blog.html.erb if you'd like a home page other than the blog. I found that moving the blog articles into a subdirectory will also keep the project a little better organized.


The gemfile is where you can specify which gems for Middleman to use. I prefer to use Haml, Sass and CoffeeScript. Not only do each of these use indentation to specify blocks and lack semicolons, but the each have their own additional features that make building a website that much more enjoyable. To use these I simply add the gems to my Gemfile, run bundle install, and use .haml instead of .html, .sass instead of .css and .coffee instead of .js. Below is my gemfile for this site.

source "http://rubygems.org"

gem "middleman", "~> 3.3.3"
gem "middleman-blog", "~> 3.5.3"
gem "middleman-favicon-maker", "~> 3.7"
gem "middleman-livereload", "~> 3.3.4"
gem "middleman-gh-pages", "~> 0.0.3"
gem "middleman-syntax", "~> 2.0.0"
gem "builder", "~> 3.2.2"
gem "tzinfo-data", "~> 1.2014.5"
gem "sass", "~> 3.2.17"
gem "haml", "~> 4.0.5"
gem "coffee-script", "~> 2.2.0"
gem "redcarpet", "~> 3.1.2"
gem "wdm", :platform => [:mswin, :mingw]

Config File

Here is where you introduce yourself to source/config.rb. It's Middleman's instructions on how to create your site. I know you just met but he's used to being told what to do. You can change different settings and store helper methods for your site.

Blog Settings

All of the blog settings are in the config file. If you initialized the site with the blog template then the middleman-blog gem should already be in the Gemfile. To change something like the directory of your blog you will need to change blog.prefix to your desired subfolder name. Note I have mine configured to source/blog. You can also change other blog settings like summary_separator, which indicates to Middleman where an article should stop when calling article.summary. For this article I placed "README" before my "Why Middleman?" header. Middleman strips out the seperator when rendering the full article.body and preview article.summary.

# Blog settings
activate :blog do |blog|
  blog.prefix = "blog"
  blog.default_extension = ".md"
  blog.calendar_template = "calendar.html"
  blog.tag_template = "tag.html"
  blog.taglink = "{tag}.html"
  blog.year_link = "{year}.html"
  blog.month_link = "{year}/{month}.html"
  blog.day_link = "{year}/{month}/{day}.html"
  blog.permalink = "{year}/{month}/{day}/{title}.html"
  blog.sources = "{year}-{month}-{day}-{title}.html"
  blog.layout = "article_layout"
  blog.summary_separator = /()/
  blog.summary_length = -1
  blog.paginate = true
  blog.per_page = 10
  blog.page_link = "page/{num}"

Live Reload

I highly recommend using Middleman's live reload feature for a better development experience. When enabled, he sits there watching attentively for any saved changes you make and tells your browser to refresh. It evens works when connected to the development site from a mobile device so you can live test your site on a different platform. For example, if your computer is at then you could access your development at on a mobile device. Just make sure the middleman-livereload gem is in your Gemfile and add the following to config.rb.

# Reload the browser automatically whenever files change
activate :livereload

Relative Links

Relative assets, links, and paths tell Middleman to convert the path given to a relative path. For example, lets say I want to grab the image at source/images/sloth.png. I would link to the image with /images/sloth.png. Middleman would then convert the link to a relative path like ../../images/sloth.png depending on the path currently being visited. This feature is required if you are going to host your site with Github pages. Add the following to config.rb.

# Use relative links
activate :relative_assets
set :relative_links, true
set :relative_paths, true

Pretty URLs

Middleman supplies all his friends with free URL makeovers. He can turn an ugly URL like /contact.html into something beautiful like /contact. Middleman does this by creating subfolders for each page, renaming the page to index.html and placing it in the subfolder. Take advantage of this greatness with the following in config/rb.

# Pretty URLs
activate :directory_indexes

Layouts and Partials

Middleman is an excellent listener and you'll never have to tell him the same thing twice. Layouts and partials allow you to specify HTML once and use it on multiple pages.


Middleman will start you out with a default site layout at source/layout.erb that is wrapped around each page. Just put some HTML around a yield and Middleman will take care of the rest. The following is my layout at source/layouts/layout.haml, which Middleman knows to use as the default layout.

!!! 5
  = partial "partials/head"
  %body{ class: "#{page_classes}" }
    = partial "partials/nav"
    #main= yield
    = partial "partials/footer"


Partials allow you to render a snippet of HTML on any page. You can see in my layout above I am rendering partials for the head, nav and footer of my site. I simply create a file at source/partials/_nav.haml and tell Haml to render the file at the top of my site.

Nested Layouts

Middleman grants you the power to create a stack of layouts. I used this feature for rendering individual articles, both summary and full views. To do this, you will first need to create the new layout at source/layouts/article_layout.haml.

= wrap_layout :layout do
    = partial "partials/article", locals: { article: current_article }

Then apply this layout to all articles by adding the following to your config.rb.

# Custom layout for articles
page "blog/../*", layout: :article_layout

Notice that I'm using a partial to render an individual article, so the articles look the same on an article page and when viewing a list of articles. When I call this partial I pass the article in and I can also pass an optional variable to indicate if I want the article summary rendered. The following is my article partial.

- summary ||= false

.article{ class: ("summary" if summary) }
  .title= link_to article.title, article
  .date= article.date.strftime('%b %e, %Y')
  - if summary
    = article.summary
    - if article.summary != article.body
      %p= link_to "Read more", article
  - else
    = article.body
    = partial "partials/disqus"

Comments With Disqus

Disqus is an easy way to add commenting to your articles. Don't worry, Disqus and Middleman go way back. Simply signup and follow the instructions. When you are ready to paste the Disqus Javascript you can create a Disqus partial as I did and render it as above. Notice I only include the Disqus partial when rendering the full article.

Build That Site

Well this is the super easiest thing ever. Just run the following command and watch as Middleman generates your static site and places it in build/.

bundle exec middleman build

Hosting With Github Pages

Now you can bascially host that static site on any webserver, but I found Github Pages convenient, free and easy to use. This is especially nice if you are already using Github to track your site. Remember that relative links, paths, and assests are required when hosting on Github.

First you'll need to create a Github account and add you site to source control. Make sure you add /build to your .gitignore before commiting.

Next you will need to add the middleman-gh-pages gem to the Gemfile. Then the following to the Rakefile.

require "middleman-gh-pages"

To deploy, make sure that all your changes are committed and run the following command to build and publish the site. This will push the static pages created from the build to the gh-pages branch of your Github project.

bundle exec rake publish

Then you can check out your site at http://USERNAME.github.io/BLOGNAME. You now have a free, fast, flexible blog site! Just create some new blog articles and start publishing. You can also configure a custom domain with the project by following these instructions.

All Done

To be completely honest, writting this article took just as long as creating my Middleman website. I do believe Middleman and I will stay friends for quite a while.

You can view the source of my website at the time of writting this article.

And if you need more info on Middleman you can check out the superb documentation.