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The State of my 2013 WordPress Toolset – Themes

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When I wrote the 2012 version of this post last year, I did not expect it to become the most commented post on this blog ever. It made me realize that there is a real hunger for information about premium WordPress themes and frameworks out there, a need for opinions from people working with some of these products every day and who are not afraid to speak their mind. I like to think I do that here.

I also try to make a distinction between what frameworks would work well for professional WordPress designers and developers versus casual users. The former is what interests me and most reviews out there are targeted at the latter. Also, you often get a review from someone who tinkered with a framework on a test site for a few minutes or hours. I work with the themes I mention here all the time. Testing a theme framework for a couple hours will not give you a perspective on things like:

  • How well do upgrades and updates work? Do updates typically break client sites layouts? Do you need to tweak your child themes every time you upgrade the parent theme?
  • How does the framework perform on a real live site with real traffic? Is the site slower or faster with this framework compared to others?
  • How does the developer handle support? How fast, how helpful are they. This is key when your client work depends on a product like a theme so heavily.
  • Etc…

This post is also a kind of intro to other posts I’ll write in the coming weeks and months where I explain in more detail the reasons I’d choose a WordPress theme framework over others and I’ll finally write some real in-depth theme framework reviews based on these criteria. That is already started.

But for now, here’s the state of my 2013 WordPress themes toolset…

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My Top 10 Web Design Tools

I had already started working on a blog post with my top 10 most useful Web design tools but, like many other things these days, I had continually postponed finishing it in favor of “more important things”. Like client work… ;-)

But I saw a post today on the Visualrinse blog that tackled the same topic so it prompted me to finish mine.

As mentioned in the above blog post, we all have our own favorite working methods, tricks and tools for completing projects and, as I have already mentioned here before, I have really tried to refine my process in the last year or so and find the tools that really help me get my work done, especially since I am a one man shop and need to tackle both the design and development aspects of my projects as well as managing them and my clients. Now that I am freelancing full time, I have really started to develop a process that works for me. So here are the tools I could not live without in my Web design and development work.

 

  1. Mindjet MindManager Pro / JCV Gantt Pro. I stated using MindManager in the summer of 2007 and it has quickly become one of my most useful tools. I use it for several things like brainstorming ideas, creating projetc management documents like a projet’s creative brief, work breadown structure or tasks, site maps and more. Each project gets a “dashboard” map that links to all the other project related maps, documents or folders. From the tasks map I move to the JCV Gantt Pro addin to create the project schedule and determine the cost of the project. MindManager is the best “knowledge repository” application I’ve ever tried and I now wonder what I did without it before I found it.
  2. Axure RP Pro. Axure is the most recent addition to my toolset. It takes off where MindManager leaves off for me. As great as MindManager is for my own internal processes I realized it did not create great deliverables for clients. Axure is the best tool I found to create site maps and flow charts but its main purpose is wireframes, functional interactive prototypes and documentation and it really excels at it. I’m working on a appointment/calendar app for a current site project and prototyping it in Axure will save me a lot of coding time later. There’s nothing like showing a working, clickable and interactive version of a site feature to a client, even if it is fake, to work out the kinks and nail down expectations.
  3. Adobe Fireworks. The mainstay in my toolset for the last 10 years and my most used app along with Dreamweaver. I really could not do my job without Fireworks. It completely replaced Photoshop for me for Web design and layout work over 10 years ago and I have never looked back. Its hybrid raster/vector workflow as well as Web centric focus make it the most efficient design app I have ever used. It’s like Photoshop/Illustrator and InDesign all rolled up into one killer app but just for the Web. CS4 will be released soon and it really will be the best version ever.
  4. Adobe Dreamweaver. Unlike Fireworks which I pretty much adopted immediately after trying version 2.0, it took me a long time to warm up to Dreamweaver. I had been using HomeSite which was a great code editor for a long time but I had to use a separate FTP application to upload sites and was looking for ways to automate some of the repetitive work. Around the release of Dreamweaver 4 but especially the next one, Dreamweaver MX (6.0), the application had evolved in such a way that it basically replaced HomeSite for me. Now it is a full fledged Web authoring environment I couldn’t live without anymore. It has the right balance of code centric features, visual editing and a lot of other features around those that just make it a true powerhouse. The new CS4 version which is in public beta right now adds very cool new features that are already making my life easier.
  5. ColdFusion. I am more of a designer and front end developer than a backend developer but I still have to wear that hat. I have tried Perl and used ASP in the past and although it was OK it got tedious for me after a while. I also tried PHP as it’s very popular but I really don’t like it at all for some reason. It really didn’t click with me and I strongly dislike the syntax. When I started working with ColdFusion it’s like a light bulb was turned on for me. The syntax made sense and it could do more in fewer lines of code than ASP (and most other server-side scripting languages) ever could. In the last few years, ColdFusion has kept evolving into one of the most powerful server-side development solutions around with many buit-in features you need plugins for in other platforms. It really rocks my world and has empowered me to build better Web sites.
  6. Web Developer Toolbar. Although Firefox is not my main browser (Opera is… and Google Chrome is gainning ground), no Web designer/developer should be without this utility.
  7. Firebug. Another amazing Firefox extension that probably needs no introduction. The Inspect functionality alone makes this an absolute must-have. If you’re not sure what CSS rule affect a misbehaving element, you’ll find it with Firebug’s Inspect. Not far behind is Opera’s new Dragonfly feature which is still in alpha. Similar to Firebug but built right into Opera 9.5+.
  8. Genopal. Going back to designer tools, Genopal is one of those rare finds you wonder how you did without before discovering it. Genopal is a small application used to create color schemes. Nothing earth shattering here but, it does it in a very unique way that I had never seen before. This is the most intuitive color tool I have ever used and I urge anyone struggling with creating good color schemes to try it. I use the desktop Pro version but there’s also an online version on the site. This one is a true little gem.
  9. Studiometry. What would I do without this amazing application? Studiometry is the administrative center of my world. Projects, clients details, contacts, timers, invoicing, reports and more, Studiometry tracks every detail of my professional work and helps me keep organized.
  10. jQuery. This “little” JavaScript framework has rocked my world. Like ColdFusion but on the front end, it has empowered me to create complex interactivity faster and easier than I ever could before. I have tried others but jQuery just clicked for me and I keep being amazed at what I can accomplish with it.

 

So the above are my own must-haves. The list is not complete though so here’s a few honorable mentions for other applications that are central to my work :

One is Outlook 2007 for keeping up with not only email but client contacts, calendar and categorized tasks lists  (following the GTD principles). It’s the first app I launch in the morning and the last one I ckeck at night.

Another is FeedDemon, the incredible RSS feeds aggregator from Nick Bradbury and NewsGator. In our field, fighting information overload has become a real issue, at least it has for me. FeedDemon helps me keep informed by following the myriad of sites I am interested in but also through keyword feeds that gather information about specific topics I’m interested in.

Lastly, I need to mention Twitter and the TweetDeck client. I’ve been a very late Twitter adopter as I didn’t “see” the use and thought it would be a waste of time. But now that I work on my own full time, I enjoy the connection to the people I follow. Like FeedDemon, TweetDeck enables me to separate my Twitter “stream” into groups. But furthermore, it enables me to keep watch on particular topics in the “public stream” by letting me add colomns based on specific keyword searches. It took me a long time to get on Twitter but now, TweetDeck is always running on my laptop while I work on my main machine.

Well that’s it for me at this time. What are your own preferred tools that you just cannot live without?

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What About that Fireworks CS4?

Although the new version of Fireworks has been in public beta for a while now, I haven’t talked much about it here yet. Not because it’s not an exciting release, quite the opposite, but only because until a month ago I was basically working 2 full time jobs and since I turned a full time freelancer, I’ve worked hard at setting up my new business, re-branding its image and getting into my freelance groove. I’ll talk about all that later but I’m just saying that I just did not have the time to write anything meaningful about Fireworks CS4. This post is just a start.

Anyone who’s read this blog before or had to “endure” some of my long winded tirades about Fireworks’s development and direction in the last few years knows that I just haven’t been happy at all about a lot of what happened and a lot of the decisions that have been made during the development of the last 3 versions. On one hand, I have been a long time evangelist of the product but, on the other hand, one of its harshest critics as well. That’s because I care about it… a lot. Fireworks is one of the reasons I was able to build a nice Web design business for myself on the side while working a full time job in the printing industry. It enabled me to work faster and get ideas into concrete form easier than with any other graphic application I’ve used before or since. So it has long been a key part of my tool-set and now that I do this full time, it’s becoming even more important to me.

But there is a lot to be happy about in the new CS4 version. It still misses some long requested features but it has finally started moving in the right direction again and actually made a huge leap forward.

If you do not want to download and install beta software and are not interested in reading lengthy new features descriptions, please just take a few minutes to watch this video on Adobe TV that features Alan Musselman (who is an application architect from the Fireworks team) demonstrating some of the key new features and improvements in Fireworks 4.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve been this excited about a new Fireworks release but this one really is a fantastic and worthwhile upgrade. Beyond the UI changes, most of the new features go to work flow efficiency and ease of use which have been Fireworks’ main strengths from the beginning. With this release, it’s really starting to shape up like the creative powerhouse application it was always promised to become. I can’t wait to see how much further Fireworks will jump with the CS5 version…

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More on the Web/Print Work Flow Separation…

Just in the nick of time following the post I wrote yesterday, I made a trip to my local bookstore last night and I bough the new issue of Dynamic Graphics magazine (April/May). The issue’s focus is mainly on type but there is a entire article in the mag devoted to the issue I was discussing.

The article (titled “Jack of Both Trades“) makes the point in the very first paragraph that, nowadays, designer’s clients have come to expect Web skills from their “print” designers, not as a nice-to-have asset but as a matter of fact. I see the same the other way around. Web designers are now often required to design print assets as clients prefer to deal with a single vendor for all their branding/identity needs rather than to having to do business with 2 or more (in addition to printers, etc). This really is not a new trend either as I have seen this evolving that way for years now.

Why hasn’t Adobe marketing answered to that trend better than they have with their Creative Suite 3 packaging is their responsibility to explain. It is quite clear to me when you look at the new features of individual apps in the CS3 Suites that the developers and product managers have listened to Adobe and former Macromedia customers and answered their needs. It is also quite clear to me that marketing has not listened so well.

The Web/Print dichotomy really does not make a whole lot of sense anymore and software vendors like Adobe really need be more flexible in the way they provide designers the tools they need. It is too late to do anything about this with CS3 but let’s hope that Adobe hears the current outcry of users who feel their needs are not being met adequatly when they plan their packaging options for CS4.

I think the best option they could explore for the future is offering designers a way to buy downloadable packages “à la carte” and allow them to select the individual products they need. Like I said before, I have no need for Contribute but InDesign is becoming essential to my workflow for a variety of tasks. Contribute and InDesign are of course not equivalent in terms of price or value but getting InDesign instead of Contribute in a Suite tailored to my specific needs should cost less than buying the Web Premium Suite upgrade and buying InDesign standalone or getting the Design Premium Suite and getting Fireworks standalone. What do you think?

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Fireworks is NOT Photoshop!

Yes, I know that I’m repeating myself and I know that this is obvious to most of you. But apparently it’s not obvious to many and I think it’s worth repeating.

Recently I started to see a lot of the misconceptions about Fireworks I have been talking about here and which prompted me to write this article. Once again, Fireworks is NOT Photoshop (obvious) but more than that, Fireworks is not the same kind of application as Photoshop and this is not so obvious apparently…

Like I said, I’ve started coming into contact with many people for whom Fireworks is new or who have been working with it basically the same way they would work in Photoshop (yes I’m talking about this…). I think the simplest way this can be put is that Fireworks is just like Illustrator with some Photoshop-like functionality. But at its core it’s a vector based application just like Illustrator or FreeHand but unlike those two apps it can edit raw image pixels directly just like Photoshop. That makes Fireworks a hybrid vector/raster application with a primarily vector based workflow. Layers in Fireworks for example work like Illustrator’s NOT Photoshop’s (Fireworks layers contain "objects", not just pixels). I’ll stop here for now but if you want more detailed information, read my article.