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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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Now is a Good Time to be a Fireworks Evangelist

I could not imagine my creative process without Adobe Fireworks. I have been using that application since version 2.0 sometime in 1999. 10 years ago, Fireworks was not an obvious choice but the workflow advantages over Photoshop were immediately evident to me and my creative process never was the same. Unfortunately, it took almost all those years for Fireworks to be taken seriously in the industry. Being a Fireworks evangelist 5 or 6 years ago felt like preaching in the desert. But not anymore.

Today, Fireworks is finally thriving. After a couple false starts and dud versions (yes I’m looking at you Fireworks 8 and CS2!), versions CS3 and CS4 have finally brought Fireworks to a level where many industry heavyweights are now paying attention. It is also crossing over into new fields like User Experience and Interaction Design where many practitioners who are not traditional Web designers (read visual/graphic designers) use Fireworks for rapid prototyping and quickly iterating interface and interaction designs.

It is an exciting time for Fireworks which proves that Adobe’s decision to keep it alive after acquiring Macromedia was the right one. Not only that but the application itself has finally started to really improve again after stagnating for a few years under Macromedia’s watch. There are new books being written about it or with chapters about it, new (and not so new) Web sites covering how to use it or who is using it. Can’t wait to see what’s in store in Fireworks’ future.

If you have never tried it, do yourself a favor and do so. If you are coming from Photoshop, leave your pixel pushing Photoshop mindset at the door and embrace Fireworks vector based workflow. Regardless of Fireworks’ very capable bitmap editing tools, its real strength lies in its hybrid workflow based on a vector based core. Until you really give it a try, you will never know how much difference working in a vector based environment does for any kind of layout work.

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Enable Commenting on your Live Axure Prototypes

I’ve started working on a large project as part of a team of 5 people recently. Aside from doing the visual design, I’m working on the UX strategy and information architecture with an IA and UX designer from the US. We’re of course creating most of our documentation, user flows, wireframes and prototype in Axure RP Pro. He and I have been working on the same project file using the new Shared Project feature from Axure 5.x and collaborating on it through a free Subversion server (www.myversioncontrol.com). That works very well and, once a day or sometimes more often, I’ll generate the Axure prototype and FTP it to a password protected sub-domain on my site so that other team members can consult it. There’s also other project file linked from a page in the prototype. But there was one thing missing from this process.

The thing is that, as of now, Axure prototypes do not handle comments on the project from other stakeholders as some online prototyping applications like Protoshare do. But recently, I’ve discovered a little script that enables us to integrate comments quite easily using the free Protonotes service. That script is called Head Insert and has been developed by another Axure enthusiast named Joshua Morse. He originally published version 1.2 in this blog post and recently updated the script to version 1.31 which can be found here.

What the script does is add a small bit of JavaScript code provided by Protonotes when you signup (for free) to the head of each appropriate HTML file in the generated Axure HTML prototype. Then, when a user loads the prototype in their browser, they can see comments added by others, edit/reply to them and add their own through a toolbar created through the Protonotes script. Using variables in the script you can control whether the toolbar or the actual comments appear on page load by default. The comments themselves are saved in a MySQL database on ProtoNotes’ server or, optionally, on your own. It works very well and the great thing is that this is all free!

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Rapid Prototyping Tools and Principles

Dan Harrelson from Adaptive Path has written a very interesting blog post titled Rapid Prototyping Tools and what makes good prototypes. My long time favorite Adobe Fireworks is mentionned along with Axure RP Pro (which is a newer tool in my arsenal) but also several others including online tools like Balsamiq Mockups.

What is most interesting to me in the post is the first part before he lists the tools and where he explains the principles of good prototyping and why it should be done in the first place. For me, this comes following a very well received presentaion at the IA Summint 2009 from Fred Beecher titled Integrating Effective Prototyping Into Your Design Process and which I followed through live tweeting as I couldn’t attend.

Both Harrelson and Beecher press the important point that creating interactive prototypes helps us design better user experiences as they help validate a design direction early in the process before investing a lot of money and effort into design or development solutions that may not yield the best results possible.

I strongly suggest you take a look at Dan Harrelson’s blog post and go through Fred’s presentation slides. They may put you on a track to improve your own process and deliver better solutions to your clients.

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Axure RP Pro 5.5 Has been Released

The new version 5.5 of Axure RP Pro has been released a couple days ago after being in public beta for a few months. It’s a very significant upgrade in terms of new features and is free for existing customers with a current license.

Noteworthy features include the ability to load and create external widget libraries (similar to Visio stencils for exemple) that can be shared with coworkers or other Axure users. The new version ships with a bunch of libraries based on the Yahoo Design Patterns Library.

Other improvements include changes to the design environment like the addition of a size and location panel directly in the UI, a Dynamic Panels manager palette and more. Check the changelog for all the details and download the new version here.