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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.

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Microsoft, Mac, Computer Troubles and Advertising

Famous blogger Robert Scoble has published a very interesting post today about Apple’s advertising and brand promise following his experience upgrading his Mac computer with Apple’s latest updates. He is making the point that Apple claims the Apple experience is better, that Apple builds better quality computers, various hardware and software than its competitors. So when he reported problems with his upgrade, many apple users flocked to his site to post comments blaming him for his troubles and criticizing him for criticizing Apple’s marketing.

I don’t usually comment on issues like this but I have seen this kind of wolf pack mentality before as well and I find it disturbing. I don’t drink anyone’s Kool-Aid and I find those Windows/Mac debates tiresome and irrelevant because my computer is ultimately just a tool to me. Not a social standing object and not a way to try and be cool. Both sides will argue that their camp is the best and you are basically a moron for believing otherwise. But Mac fanatics just have this extra little bit of zeal, that smug self-righteousness of the “true believer”. Not every Mac user is like that of course and many of them see their machines simply as the tools that they really are. But there are those who really buy into the Mac lifestyle thing or the “brand promise” Scoble talks about. Nothing wrong with that if it makes you happy but when any criticism of the Mac marketing hype brings on the flames then maybe these Mac users take their little Apple branded gizmos a little bit too seriously…

They’re just computers people, it’s not the brand name on them that matters, it’s what you create with them!

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Digital Editions: Working Again, Still Not Impressed

Just as a follow-up to my last post about the new Adobe Digital Editions eBooks reader software, Adobe has released and updated version a couple days ago that solved the crashing problem that I and many other users were having. So now, I can now go back to reading my Flash book.

I’m happy I can go back to studying the new version of Flash, but I still think this new software is sub par for Adobe and I’m still wondering why they though they “had” to create yet another reader for eBooks instead of letting customers use the far more sophisticated and better working Acrobat Reader 8.1. I mean, if Digital Editions actually improved the user experience I may understand why it was created, but it doesn’t. Quite the opposite.

Admittedly, I have an old computer by today’s standards (a situation soon to be corrected as I’m shopping for a new one this week) but Reader 8.1 works very well on this machine. It’s still responsive and feels quite fast. In contrast, when I try to navigate a document in Digital Editions, clicking buttons often has no effect whatsoever and pressing the keyboard arrow keys to advance to the next page either does nothing or advances to a seemingly random spot. In Reader, a press of the right arrow key brings me to the top of the next page no matter what position I am scrolled to in the preceding page, but not in Digital Editions which seems to have no sense of where the pages start and stop in the actual document.

This kind of thing may seem trivial to many but it is huge to me as, these days, I probably read 5 times more electronic documents (in the widest possible definition of the term) than paper ones. That means I spend a lot of time in Adobe Reader and I’m used to how it works. That doesn’t mean I am unwilling or unable to adapt to new ways of doing things, but I usually expect the new to improve on the old. In the case of Digital Editions, IMO, it doesn’t and it makes it all that more frustrating to be forced to use it to read the electronic books I have or may purchase in the future.

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Adobe Digital Editions: I’m Really NOT Impressed

Last week, I purchased an eBook from Adobe Press (Flash CS3 related) because I wanted to get back up to speed with Flash since I’ll need to use it for upcoming projects. This was the first time I bought an eBook and the only reason I did was because I wanted it right away and didn’t want to wait for delivery.

When came the time to download it I was prompted to install a new reader application called Digital Editions. That already bugged me quite a bit because I already have Acrobat Reader 8.1 installed and I quite like it but apparently, Adobe decided that unlike Reader versions 6 and 7, version 8 would not support and would not be able to open eBooks. Why on earth did Adobe think we needed yet another piece of reader software when we already had a perfectly good one that can do the job?

This new Digital Editions things is just a far from subtle effort on Adobe’s part to push their Flex/RIA platform. For me, Digital Editions was slower than Reader and had a clunky interface… plus it’s all black and you cannot change that. I HATE100% black user interfaces, especially in a utilitarian piece of software like this. But at least, it enabled me to open my ebook and read it. That was until today…

This morning I tried to fire up Digital Editions to keep reading my eBook and I was prompted with a dialog forcing me to download the final release. The version I was using before was a beta. I won’t even go into the braindead decision to force customers who buy eBooks from Adobe Press to install and use beta software on their work machines. That’s a whole other level of stupidity I’m not going to get into here.

The thing is, after installing this so called "final" version, it crashes right after I start it. No matter how I uninstall and reinstall it, reboot or delete its config folder, that piece of junk just will not start and keeps crashing almost as soon as I start it. To say that I’m pissed that I apparently wasted $40 on an eBook I cannot even open is an understatement. Way to go Adobe! I will definitely go back to buying paper copies only of any future books I buy. At least they will always be available when I need them…