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The State of My 2012 WordPress Toolset – Themes

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The last few months have been my busiest since I started freelancing full time in August 2008 and I’ve also had to tackle some of my most complex WordPress projects. This means I had to re-evaluate parts of my WordPress toolset to be able to satisfy some of my increasingly demanding clients’ requirements and was forced to make some important changes to it.

I also learned a lot about WordPress as a development platform in the last two years and, after working with ColdFusion for a long time, I’m starting to get far more comfortable with PHP now. This enabled me to appreciate how powerful, elegant and flexible the WordPress platform really is and how much easier it makes things when you use the tools and APIs it provides correctly. This new understanding forced me to look at some of the tools I was using with new eyes and rethink some of the early decisions I made when I first started to work with WordPress. This includes rethinking Headway, the theme framework I’d been using as I was starting to have issues with it and the theme is the most important component of a WordPress site besides WordPress itself.

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Get Headway Before November 25

Many of you know that, since I’ve started working with WordPress, the only theme I’ve used on any client project is Headway. Headway is not “just” a theme like the multitude of premade themes (free or paid) you can download and slap on a site with a few tweaks. Headway is a theme framework. It enables me to integrate any design I create or is given to me into a site. It affords me total flexibility as well as reliable tools I can count on project after project. To me, it’s not just a WordPress theme or a framework but a complete Web Site Design and Development System.

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The Real Pixelyzed 3.0 is Live (and Back with Headway)

Sometime last week I finally finished the “real” pixelyzed 3.0 redesign and switched the theme of the site back to Headway. I’m very happy to be back to Headway and will talk about it more in future posts as I truly think it’s the best WordPress theme framework for professionals doing client sites on WordPress.

The 3.0 design will probably be tweaked and evolve with time but I do not consider it transitional as I’d done with all the versions between it and the original pixelyzed 1.0 design (the one with the “pixels” grid). It is purposefully simple and I will help me concentrate on creating content.Continue Reading

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New Design & New Headway Theme Framework

I finally took the time to put up a new design I can live with for this blog (for now… this is again temporary). I trashed the design with the gray header and took a new direction. This uses the same logo as v2 and integrates design elements from the original pixelyzed.com like the pixels/boxes but with a different treatment. I also tried to simplify as much as possible. I still have some typographic tweaking to do but at least I can live with what I have for now.  But in the background, I’m going back to the drawing board and starting from scratch.Continue Reading

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Is Using WordPress Themes Frameworks Cheating at Web Design?

I read a very interesting article over the weekend titled “Are WordPress Themes Cheating in Web Design?” by James Dalman. That article itself was inspired by an older one titled “Confessions of a Template Whore” by Sabrina Dent which is equally interesting.

The point of this post is not to rehash the same ideas as these two articles. I agree with both authors that, using pre-designed themes is quite OK in many cases, especially for non-designers who want to get blogs and even simple sites up quickly and cheaply and still get at least a professional “look”, even if we all know that design goes a lot deeper than mere decoration and surface skinning.

A good looking and functional free theme like the one I used when I moved this site to WordPress won’t win anyone any originality awards, but it will get the job done for a lot of people and won’t turn away visitors because the site looks like crap or is completely unusable.

But beyond pre-made themes that you just plug into a site and tweak a little, there is whole other category of themes called “Premium Themes” or theme frameworks. This site’s evolving design is now based on one called Thesis and I’ll be redoing my company blog as well as Isabelle’s entire Web site using another called Headway. I talked about Thesis and theme frameworks in this recent post.

Basically, what theme frameworks do is enable you to easily (or relatively easily)  “skin” your blog or site using your own design with little or no coding… and that is what I wanted to touch on here.

A major Shift

For me, starting to use WordPress has been a mind shift in itself, for a few reasons. But I always figured I would at least eventually build my own theme for it… from scratch… and I figured I would build blogs with it and little else. But that’s until I discovered the true power of the platform. The mind shift was complete once I discovered Thesis and Headway and the world of theme frameworks… and my imagination started racing!

As many of you know, I have been designing and building Web sites for a long time now, so I know how to code and do so in an efficient manner. I’ve never used code exported from Fireworks (the application I design all of my sites with) because it never was good enough for me. Without calling myself a purist, I’ve always taken pride in the quality of my HTML and CSS and I’ve worked hard at keeping up with current techniques. So you can imagine my reluctance to let go of most of my control using WordPress and a theme framework to build not only a blog, but entire Web sites!

But I plan to do just that for not only Isabelle’s site, but my biggest Web site project to date if I get it (I’m sending my bid in on Friday) as well as any suitable future projects.

What changed my mind? Quite frankly, I’m tired of the tedium and repetition. Using WordPress and a good theme framework means that a lot of a site’s infrastructure is already done for me, and done solidly too. Like James Dalman said in his article:

  • It takes a lot of energy and time to create something from nothing,
  • freelancers are limited by time,
  • and a business’ primary goal (freelance or otherwise) is to be profitable

These are just as applicable to coding a site as they are to designing it. If I can get more projects done faster it will mean a better cash flow for me and significant savings for my clients. Plus it will mean I will concentrate more on the parts I enjoy (strategy, design, UX) and less on the tedium of coding the same kind of functionality again and again.

This is not for every project but when it is applicable, it will be a win-win for everyone IMO.

What do you think?

Update – November 16th, 2012:
Just a short not to say that, since I published this post, I’ve changed my mind and stopped recommending Thesis. I would actually recommend staying away from it for several reasons I may touch upon in a future post. I also have big reservations about Headway now based on several incidents I had with it like minor updates breaking sites in the 3.x version and 2.x sites breaking completely for no reason I could find. I personally have lost my trust in Headway but still think the product is good for many people as it’s a very flexible framework and my experience is probably not typical. But these days I stick with either iThemes Builder mostly or WooThemes Canvas for some projects (including this site) because I believe they are better engineered and stick to WordPress standards better and I outlined some of the reasons I think this is very important here. I have more sites on Builder than Headway now and no updates have ever broken a layout and none of my Builder sites have ever lost their formatting for no reason overnight like what happened on my business site which was on Headway 2.0.13 until recently when I put it on Canvas.

Update – November 11th, 2013:
Just an additional note that, as of yesterday, this site now runs on the Genesis Framework which is becoming my primary WordPress theme framework. Some of the reasons are outlined in the post for the launch of v5.0 of this site but I will publish a complete review in the near future. I will also continue to use iThemes Builder and WooThemes Canvas on existing and probably future client projects as I still belive in both the products and the companies behind theme but, at this time, I feel that Genesis meets my needs better as it outputs the cleanest, most efficient HTML and CSS code of any WordPress theme framework I’ve used so far.