On Becoming Less Dumb About WordPress (Subhead: H-E-L-P.)

There’s one specific situation in which I’m just not good at finishing something: when the thing isn’t actually important and there also isn’t any sort of deadline attached. Importance and Deadlines give you the protein you need to batter your way through obstacles. When the thing is merely something your sort of interested in, you’ll wrestle with it for a certain number of minutes, hours, or days until something Important or Due Soon starts barking for your time.

This is by way of explaining why I haven’t made any real changes to the looks or operation of my blog…and why a Terrific Idea For A New One has remained stalled in its opening overtures. I have the domain, I have a WordPress install, and I have the header art…what I most definitely do not have is that basic skill set that allows the mere Enlightened Amateur to make WordPress do precisely what he or she wants it to do.

You know what I mean? I know what I want this new site to look like. Wide-ish box for the content. A wide center column with the actual postings, narrower columns to the left and right with lots of whitespace to as not to distract from the content. The “mascot” so to speak is the background image, pinned to the upper-left corner. A row of tabs at the top for rough navigation. And nice little styles for a variety of media content types.

This is something I hinted at in my Posterous review: WordPress is as simple as it can possibly be. Which is not to say that it’s as simple as anything can be. But WordPress is first and formost a system for developing publishing platforms and those of us who want to control how every “i” is dotted and how every overscore is colored and shadowed need to adopt the mindset of a software developer.

(In the end, it’s not so much different from when I blogged using CWOBber, my homemade blogging software. The first step in creating a blog is to build the tools with which you will build daily posts.)

We tend to overlook this. There are so many other services — many of which have a nougaty center of WordPress — that make blogging into a true click-and-go system, and with a cozy level of personal customization as well. There’s no rational reason to expect that building a WordPress blog by hand should be as easy as Posterous, or even Squarespace.

So why don’t I just go with one of those? Well, because

  • I want to do more with Ihnatko.com and [redacted].com than what Posterous can handle.
  • I want to have total control over where the content lives, and I want the ability to make regular backups of what I hope will be valuable content.

And admittedly,

  • Cripes, the number of little services I already use that cost me $12 a month is enough to curl my nose hairs.

Squarespace is a nifty deal, but one of the fab things about getting virtual hosting through MediaTemple is that I can keep adding new WordPress installations at no extra charge. I’m buying bandwidth. Whether I “spend” that bandwidth on one site or a dozen is completely up to me.

To learn is to live. I happily find myself in a line of work in which no time is wasted so long as I learned something in the process. (Ideally, something that I can then convert to discretionary income through publishing).

I had two illusions about WordPress development:

“You can find an existing WordPress theme that looks like the site you want. Download it, activate it, tweak it a little, and you’re there.”

Not really. There are thousands of free, professional themes for WordPress that’ll take you 75% of the way, but that’s a bit like a ship that will take you 75% of the way to the Sun. You’re still about 25,000,000 miles short so pack a lunch and wear comfortable shoes.

Also, good luck finding “a theme that’s 75% close” to what you want. There are search engines that let you click and select sertain features (“Three columns,” etc.) but on the whole you want a single checkbox that reads “C’mon, you know what I mean.” It ain’t there.

“I can build my own theme from scratch if necessary.”

Indeed I could; indeed I did. But again, a WordPress blog is a piece of software. The result of weeks of effort by a relative newbie is going to pale in comparison to the most trivial scrawlings of an experienced professional.

The power of WordPress is its integration into the larger WP community of plugins and services. These things only work if the theme supports ’em. I quickly found myself back in my classic AppleScript Quandary, where I’d want to incorporate a feature to simplify posting, but the effort of writing that feature and making it work correctly far outstripped the effort required to just do it by hand every time, over my entire lifetime.

“I want to use this plugin with my theme.”

“Okay: so here’s how to incorporate support for the plugin architecture:…”

I’ve come to a conclusion: there are really only two solutions to my “I want a slick, custom WordPress blog” problem.

I can simply pay someone to build it for me. Good. Satisfying. Do you want to spend the entire summer enjoying your new patio? Or do you want to spend May through August with a dug up backyard strewn with tools and supplies, ending with an amateurish barbecue deck that’s finished just in time for Labor Day?

The difference is the ability to see your checkbook as a power tool. Honestly, give it a try. Put on canvas gloves while you sign it if it’ll make you feel better. Yes, it kills you that you’re spending all of that money for just a couple of days’ labor. Think of it like this: you’re not paying for the two days of labor. You’re paying for the years of study and practical experience that allow this person to apply exactly the right procedure and technique without wasting time with inefficient methods, unproductive dead ends, unanticipated problems, or hopeless mistakes.

Not a satisfying solution for me, though. Experience is currency, for one. Currency is currency, as well, and all things considered I’d rather bash out an answer myself. I know CSS, I know HTML, and I have functional knowledge of JavaScript, PHP, MySQL, and the architecture of a WordPress blog. I ought to be able to do this.

Which leaves me with Option 2:

Forget about finding a WordPress theme that looks like it’s just a few tweaks and styles away from what I want. Instead, I’ll start with an utterly blank theme with every piece of WP infrastructure I’ll need, and use it as the starting point.

So here’s where I am right now: I’ve downloaded and installed the K2 theme. There are a couple of (old) tutorials on customizing it, and I’ll prolly be dipping deep into that well.

Eh? Oh, well, yes, of course: if you have any suggestions or links to additional info or tutorials, or endorsements of other “blank” themes, I’d be pleased to hear them. Specifically, I’d love to compile a list of “See this CSS effect? See this popular webpage element? Here’s how to make it happen” type tutorials.

(Dear Andy: please don’t close this Firefox window before you’ve bookmarked the following multipart article about CSS tricks:


Oh, and pick up some cold cuts on your way home. Ham and Swiss? — Love, Andy.)

What’s the worst that can happen? The worst that can happen is that I learn something.

I liked the movie “Apollo 13” but it did the world one great disservice: it put the phrase “Failure is not an option” into the lexicon. It’s a deathly thing to embrace in any creative endeavor. At least it does if the maxim ends there.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, an artist, an animator, or an engineer:

Failure isn’t an option. It’s actually an important and mandatory part of the process of creation.

If you didn’t break it at least once, then clearly you never pushed hard enough to begin with. Granted, the ideal is to embrace Failure as part of the ongoing process and not as a desirable or acceptable result of that process.

Posted via web from ihnatko’s posterous

13 thoughts on “On Becoming Less Dumb About WordPress (Subhead: H-E-L-P.)

  1. John Bell

    I’d agree with everything you’ve said, and still, I use Squarespace. It fits my needs, but of course, that doesn’t mean it fits everyone’s needs. I like it a lot, and actually find it to be pretty customizable, including the ability to make your own stylesheets if you desire.

  2. steven(optionshiftk)

    I adore the idea of a highly customized, hand-built theme, but at the same time part of me is in love with the clean white page, black text design philosophy. Perhaps this design style was baked into my head after becoming a fan of scripting.com and the manilla blogging CMS. It’s important to keep this in my mind : “KISS” Keep-it-Simple-Stupid. I live by that phrase. Content focused design is the way to go.

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  4. Ihnatko Post author

    @steven – You’re right. The best site designs understand the concept of balancing white space and black space. It’s a big challenge. A website needs to communicate a lot of content and dunctions and often, there’s no elegant solution.

  5. Ihnatko Post author

    @John – I do like Squarespace. I’m just a _little_ bit confused as to its place. Before Squarespace, we had great blogging services that are simple “sign up and go” affairs, and we had services like WordPress.com (and “regular” CMS options) that offered lots of customization but required a learning curve. As I tried to get deeper into Squarespace, I found myself needing to learn how the CMS worked and how to make it do what I wanted. If I have to learn something…well, doesn’t that mitigate some of the advantage?

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  7. Owen

    Working in the theatre, a common phrase in the rehearsal hall is:

    Dare to Fail Gloriously!

    Risking greatness and risking failure can be two sides of the same coin. And the process of learning and creating can be as important to the long term health of the artistic spirit as the product itself.

  8. Oscar Fleagle

    Due to the fact there are numerous personal blogs with different points of view, they question your thinking. It really is at these moments when you have significant insignt others might not have had, together with the blogger himself/herself.

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