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Designing a Custom WordPress Theme – Working with a Designer [PART 2]

Today, Amir Helzer from WPML (WordPress Multilingual) shares his experience building a custom WordPress theme.

In my previous post, I talked about what I do when commissioning custom WordPress theme design. It left where the job started. In this post, I’ll talk about the steps that follow – working with the designer towards a complete and functional theme, reviewing it and finalizing the project.

Reviewing prototypes

The first thing the designer needs to send me are prototypes of the website. These are non-functional documents (images). The designer isn’t creating a real web page for that, but rather using a drawing tool. Prototyping is a creative process. It’s when the web designer’s creative abilities get to shine.

Let the designer design, don’t do a review by committee

If you were a graphics designer, you’d have probably built your theme yourself. You’re probably not, so you asked a professional designer to help. The problem is, people don’t know how to review what they get so we start asking for feedback from others. The wife, our friends and colleagues all have something to say. Then, we compile that ‘rejects list’ and send to the designer. What we’ve done right now is make sure the designer can’t do anything.

Graphics design is a creative process and produces subjective results. Any given design will always generate criticism. If our objective is to come up with a design that makes everyone happy, we’ll end up with a pale design that has no character and no impact. Our site will not be memorable and will have no branding.

My suggestion is – leave the creative work to the designer and concentrate my efforts on functionality.

For WPML, these are the issues I raised during the prototyping stage:

  1. Make the top banner smaller and consume less page real estate.
  2. Make the text background white so it’s easier to read.
  3. Add a search box and language selector and integrate them in the top banner.
  4. Make the screen shots in the features page larger.

Create a detailed theme checklist

As the designer is building your theme, take the time to compile a comprehensive checklist of items you’re going to check. When get the first delivery, it’s like a new toy. You’ll want to play with it and show it around. It will be very helpful if you have a checklist to go through for each delivery, so nothing gets left out.

Here is my list:

  • All pages are HTML clean. To verify this, I review the theme in Firefox and use the HTML Validator extension. It displays the validation status of every page viewed so you can tell right away where there’s a problem.
  • Pages look the same in Firefox and IE7. Even if all pages are 100% HTML valid, they might display differently in different browsers (due to different CSS defaults).
    Check the home page (if it’s a the blog’s index or if it’s a special page).
  • Check samples of different templates (check for both enabled and disabled comments).
  • Check a post with and without comments.
  • Check a category page.
  • Check a tag page.
  • Check the search results page (and make sure that the search box is placed where it should).
  • Sidebar supports widgets.
  • Comments are threaded and properly coded (when I click on ‘reply to comment, the JS kicks in and the reply box is displayed under the comment).
  • Use the site navigation and see that I can get to any page.

Just to illustrate what I mean by testing on different browsers, have a look at these two screen shots:

Menu problem on IE7 - incorrect Z order of floating menu

Menu problem on IE7 - incorrect Z order of floating menu


fixed_problem_on_ie7_1

After correcting the Z-order - menus display correctly on IE7 and FF

These two shots were taken from a page that is 100% valid XHTML. No errors and no warnings. Still you can see that the navigation is completely broken on the top image and looks fine on the bottom one. This happened due to a weird IE7 bug which mixes z-order for elements if a page has more than one relative position blocks.

When the designer is ready with a new version the the theme, I review it in two stages. First on their server and then on my. If there are obvious errors, I like to see them immediately on their server before spending time uploading and installing it on my.

Logo graphics

An important part of the design is the logo. The logo that comes with the theme is great, but you also need to use it in other places. I use my logo graphics for business cards, banner ads and even in plugins. For this to work, you need to request the logo in a way that is independent of the rest of the theme design. I ask for the graphics as a high resolution transparent PNG (Portable Network Graphics).

Logo on red backgroundThen, when the designer sends me the logo, I put it on different backgrounds and magnify. This way, any artifacts are easier to spot. For starters, try while, black and red. If your transparent logo shows strange edges, it means that the transparency isn’t right and it needs fixing.

My logo includes the graphics itself and some text. I ask to get them separately, so that I can use either one or the other. Also remember to take note of the font type used in your logo. You’ll need that when creating printed material with it.

Wrap up

A custom theme for your blog will give it an identity. Like any other design project, it has its risks. When defined and managed properly, this can be a fun thing to do and produce excellent results that will bring your blog to the next level.

I hope that these tips help. Tell us about your experience getting custom design work.

This post was written by Amir Helzer, founder of WPML, a mega-plugin that aims to turn WordPress into a fully featured multilingual content management system.

Designing a Custom WordPress Theme – Working with a Designer

Today, Amir Helzer from WPML (WordPress Multilingual) shares his experience building a custom WordPress theme.

When you’re designing your blog all sorts of options are open to you – starting with a free theme (that you can later edit), through a premium customizable theme (like Thesis or Revolution2) and ending with a custom theme, created just for your site.

In January, Web Designer Matt Brett talked here about how to redesign a blog (and part 2). These posts covered the design goals, functionality and implementation. I’d like to talk about the process of working with the designer – the person who’s going to create your theme.

If you’re thinking about getting a custom theme, following these steps can make the process shorter, more productive and more enjoyable for both you and the designer.

1) State what you need and define the scope of the work

We’ll start with a list of everything that we need from this design:

A WordPress theme – sounds obvious, but you don’t want the designer to supply you just the PSD files, or a HTML file that you can turn into a theme yourself, right? Specify which version of WordPress you’re going to use it with.

Logo – a professionally designed logo can be expensive by itself, so make sure it’s included. When you ask for a logo, remember that you’ll also want to use it in printed material (like business cards or in magazines). This means asking for a high resolution version of your logo with transparent background.

Copyright – make sure it’s crystal clear that you have full copyright and exclusivity. This implies that the designer cannot use anything that violates the rights of others.

The discussion about copyright should clearly mention back-links. Web designers often give away free themes in exchange for credit links. If you want to link back to your designer’s site, that’s great, but you should decide that. You can instruct the designer to get your approval for any outgoing link placed in the theme.

Testing – ask the designers to supply a preview of your theme on their server. Normally, you can’t test their work on your live site. You might need to supply contents for this, or just do with the standard Lorem Ipsum.

2) WordPress theme basics – which elements to ask for

WordPress is evolving and theme design is more than just putting HTML in pages. You need to specify what kind of functionality you expect to get from your website.

List everything that you know you need. Here is what I told my designer when we started:

My design should include:

  • Front page
  • ‘Regular’ internal pages – for general purpose texts.
  • ‘Features’ internal pages – these pages should have a unique template that lets me highlight special features.
  • Posts (with threaded comments)
  • Category pages
  • Search

The design should have site-wide navigation including top tabs with drop-down menus, breadcrumbs trail navigation and context-dependent sidebar navigation. There should also be room reserved for the language switcher (inside the header).

The sidebar should be widget ready. Comments in posts and pages must support threading. Every page in the website must be HTML clean (pass HTML validation).

This list doesn’t tell the designer how I want the site to look, it just lists which things I need. Since she was doing a redesign for an existing site, I didn’t need to explain much about the contents for each page. If you’re getting a theme for a new site, there’s more explaining to do.

3) Prototypes come before the design

Even though you’ve chosen great designers, they’re not mind-readers. Ask the designer to provide prototypes before building any HTML or coding the theme. This way, you can approve the design concept before too much work has been put into it.

A prototype is normally delivered as an image (JPEG or PNG). During your work on the prototype, you need to take care of all the design issues. This includes the color scheme, look and feel, layout and content arrangement.

When you’ve accepted the prototype, know that this is how your site will appear. There’s not much room for design changes later on in the process. The designer’s job changes from design to implementation.

4) Payment and delivery terms

Last, but not least, before the project kicks off, you should agree on both payment and delivery terms.

Design work is not like building a railroad. You can’t pay per mile. However, there are some checkpoint on the way:

  • Prototype / wireframe design
  • Working draft
  • Completed and polished design

Both you and the designer would feel better if payment is split per delivery. You can make an initial payment, release payment when each milestone is met and the final payment is left for when the work completes and is fully reviewed.

Ready to begin your custom theme design? Here’s a quick checklist of what we talked about:

  1. Project overview
  2. Detailed scope of work
  3. Payment and delivery terms

In the next part of this post (tomorrow), we’ll talk about how to help the design go smoothly and make sure you’re getting everything you asked for.

This post was written by Amir Helzer, founder of WPML, a mega-plugin that aims to turn WordPress into a fully featured multilingual content management system.

Thesis WordPress Theme Version 1.5 Launches!

Regular readers of ProBlogger know that I’m a fan of Chris Pearson and his popular Thesis theme for WordPress.

I’ve been using Thesis on TwiTip since I started that blog back in November and have been very satisfied with it.

Chris has just launched version 1.5 of Thesis – a significant update upon the previous one. You can get a personal video tour of Thesis and many of the options and features that it has here.

Why I love Thesis?

I’m not a designer – I am hopeless on anything related to design.

For my two main blogs (ProBlogger and Digital Photography School) I’ve hired designers to come up with custom designs for my blogs. I intend to do this for TwiTip also at some point but while I’ve been building up the audience for that blog I wanted a clean and easy to use theme that would allow me to do a little customization.

Keep in mind I’m hopeless on design – so it had to be very easy to use. I also wanted something affordable to get me through the start up phase of the blog so that I could get it earning some money to help me pay for a custom design.

Thesis hit the mark for me. It’s easy to use, it’s a clean design in its default form and it has loads of customization options (see the video linked to above to see some of them). The other bonus of Thesis is that it’s well coded for SEO. TwiTip already ranks very well in Google, some of the credit for that is the coding of Thesis.

The other bonus with Thesis is the community of bloggers that has sprung up around it. They have a forum where there’s heaps of good information on how to use and customize Thesis.

Thesis costs $87 for a personal license or $164 for a developers license (where you can use it on as many blogs as you like).

If you’re in the market for a theme for your WordPress blog Thesis is a theme that you’ll want to consider.

How To Sleep Better After an Upgrade – Blog Unit Testing

Upgrading your blog platform? This guest post from Sid Savara, who writes about personal development and personal productivity is for you.

blog-upgrade-testing.png

If you’re a Thesis user (like me) you may have had some issues recently when upgrading to version 1.4. The issues affected a minority of Thesis users, and required reverting to an old version of Thesis for the sites to function while Chris Pearson troubleshot the issue – on his customer’s servers, free of charge. Chris was very responsive and issued a patch the same day (1.4.1), followed by another patch over the weekend (1.4.2). My hat’s off to Chris for providing what can only be called unparalleled customer support in a difficult situation.

This experience brings me to the larger issue – how do you ensure everything on your blog still works after an upgrade? This isn’t the first time I’ve had an issue upgrading – and I’m certainly not the first WordPress user to experience hiccups during the upgrade process either. We all occasionally have issues when we upgrade plugins, install a new plugin or upgrade WordPress itself.

Perhaps the most sinister are those issues where everything looks like it’s working fine. Sometimes after an upgrade I won’t even notice an issue until days later, and I’ll have to go back through my plugins one at a time to see what originally caused the problem.

Until recently, I checked for problems after an upgrade with the old blogger favorite “randomly click around and see if anything looks broken” strategy. The weakness of this strategy is the propensity to miss errors. I decided I needed a way to be more certain that everything went smoothly, and borrowed a couple concepts from my background in software engineering to help: Unit Tests and Regression Testing.

Unit Tests and Regression Testing

Units tests are simple, single function tests done to ensure every part of the software does what it is supposed to. If the test fails, you know exactly where the problem is and can fix it. Likewise, for my blog, each unit test checks for a specific piece of blog functionality.

In software development, a test might work at the time I first run it – but down the road I may change something that causes the test to fail. Repeating the tests whenever any change is made is called regression testing. In my years of software development, I’ve learned that a new change can cause software to react in ways we may not expect. Upgrading a plugin may cause another plugin to fail, or perhaps cause errors in your RSS subscriptions (which happened to me). For this reason, whenever I upgrade or install anything new to my blog, it is important I retest everything, every time – even if the change appears unrelated.

Blog Unit Tests

With that background, here is a handy checklist to review every time you install new plugins or themes, or upgrade any part of your blog. Some tests are especially relevant when installing a new theme, while some should be reviewed carefully in cases of plugin installs and upgrades. Since you won’t know exactly what is affected by each change, it’s important to go through the entire list every time. This list gives you specific checks you can run through in 15-30 minutes and know that your installation is successful. I use WordPress – but this list should apply regardless of your blog or CMS platform.

Note: When running these tests, be sure to force a refresh and clear your browser cache before beginning so you are seeing the current version of your site. If this sounds like Greek to you, here’s a brief explanation of forcing refreshes.

  1. Index page
    1. Title of the page. Is it what you want it to be? Are site name and tag line in the order you desire?
    2. Site name. Is it present? Is it clickable (if you want it to be)?
    3. Description/tag line. Is it present? Is it clickable (if you want it to be)?
    4. Header image. Does clicking on it return you to the home page? Do you want it to?
    5. Favicon. Is your favicon still present? This is a sinister one, as browsers sometimes cache these even if you are forcing a refresh.
    6. Excerpts, Thumbnails and Full Posts. Is the index showing excerpts or full posts the way you want it to? If applicable, are thumbnails and featured posts where they should be?
    7. Post Titles/Permalinks. Does clicking on a post title take you to the blog post?
    8. Comment links. Are the correct comment counts displayed? Does clicking the link take you to the appropriate comment form?
    9. Categories/Tags. Are category and tag links displayed? Do you want them to be?
    10. Meta description. View your page source. Look for <meta name=”description” content=”[...]” />. Is the value in the [...] what you expect it to be? See SEO Tips for Blogs for a detailed discussion of why this is important. You may, optionally, want to repeat this test on single post pages.
  2. Index sidebar (s), navigation links and footer
    1. Widget enabled theme. Are all the widgets present?
    2. Widget order. Are the widgets in the order they should be?
    3. Links in widgets the sidebar. Does clicking a link take you where you expect it to? Appropriate pages, external sites, etc? Do the links open in a new window, or the current window?
    4. Site wide navigation (if applicable). Are all the links present? Are they in the order desired? Click a couple. Do the links work? Do the links open in a new window, or the current window?
  3. Archive pages – tags, categories, sitemap, and date based

    1. Index page tests. Repeat all the same tests as the index page. Spot check one category, one tag and one month archive as applicable. If you have a sitemap, check that as well.
  4. Single Post pages
    1. Title bar. Is the post title and site name in the order desired? Does it show everything you want? Post Title, Category, Site Name, Tag Line?
    2. Post Title. Is the post title present? Is it clickable (or not) depending on what you want?
    3. Comment links. Do you want a link to the comment form displayed near the post title? Are the correct comment counts displayed? Does clicking that link take you to the appropriate comment form?
    4. Next/Previous post links. Are they displayed? Before, after, or both? Are they nofollowed or dofollow based on your preference?
    5. Page layout. Are sidebars, navigation links and footer present? Repeat the checks described under #2 above, Index sidebar (s), navigation links and footer .
    6. Categories and tags. Are categories displayed (or hidden) as desired? How about tags? Are they clickable? Are they nofollow or follow based on your preference?
    7. Breadcrumbs. If you have breadcrumbs, are they present and appropriate for the navigation you desire?
    8. Comment and Trackbacks: run through the list below.
  5. Comment and Trackbacks
    1. Comment form. Is your comment form present?
    2. Comments. Are comments displayed? Are the comment counts accurate? Do the gravatars work, if desired?
    3. Trackbacks. Is the trackback link present? Do you want it to be? Are your trackbacks listed?
    4. Test comment. Submit a test comment. Does your comment submit? Is it held in a moderation queue?
    5. Comment subscriptions. Subscribe to comments option
      1. Comment feed. Subscribe to a comment feed – do you see all the comments? When you submit/approve a new comment, does it update?
      2. Subscribe by email. If applicable, try subscribing by email and then submitting another comment – are you notified via email?
  6. Regular pages
    1. Comments on pages. Do you have comments enabled? Do you want them to be? Trackbacks?
    2. Sidebars. Are sidebars present? Do you want them to be?
    3. Page hierarchy. Is the hierarchy displayed the way you want it to be? How about your permalink?
    4. Repeat all the tests for the single post pages.
  7. Images and image links
    1. Images. Navigate to a page or blog post with images hosted on your blog. Do your images load? Check the alt text and title text on the images – are they what you want them to be?
    2. Larger image. Does clicking the image bring up the large version (if applicable)? Is the link nofollow or follow based on your preference?
  8. RSS feed
    1. New post. Publish a test post – does it appear in your feed? (You are subscribed to your own feed, right?)
    2. RSS Link. Double check the RSS link – is it pointing to your feed?
  9. Errors and Redirects
    1. 404 page. Type in an address that does not exist. Review the 404 page. Is it the way you want it to be?
    2. Redirects. Have you redirected posts or pages in the past? Spot check a few. A couple internal posts, a couple internal pages, and a couple external links.
  10. Contact form (if applicable)
    1. Send a test email. Send yourself a test email to ensure your contact form still works. Do you receive the email? Are all the fields present?
    2. Confirmation. Do you see an appropriate confirmation shown to the user on the site after submission? If applicable, is a confirmation email sent to the submitter?

This is only a partial list – but it’s a great starting point. If you have specific plugins installed such as CommentLuv, or various search plugins, be sure to check all of them individually as well. If you have a plugin that generates your sitemap, and you upgrade it – that’s a good time to go and double check that your sitemap page still loads appropriately.

What do you think? What tips do you have for ensuring upgrades go smoothly?

This is a guest post from Sid Savara, who writes about personal development and personal productivity at SidSavara.com. If you’re struggling to get through everything in your RSS reader and inbox, you should definitely click through to learn How to Effectively Read 12,853 Articles, Forum Topics & Blog Posts a Week.

How to ReDesign a Blog [Part II]

This post is the 2nd in a two part series in which Matt Brett shares how he approached redesigning Digital Photography School. Read Part 1 Here.

dps-redesign09-home.jpg

When it came to developing the new Digital Photography School, the real challenge was brought to the table. How was I going to house three blogs under one roof? There were many routes I could take, but I narrowed it down to two pretty early on…

1. Use WordPress MU to host the different blogs under a single install. b5media is in the process of moving all their blogs to the MU platform, so it made sense to be ahead of the curve with DPS already being on it. Tying the blogs together on the homepage and cross-promoting in the sidebar would be easily handled by parsing feeds via SimplePie.

Including all three blogs in archive indexes, search results, etc. would have been made a little more tricky. There are several down-sides to going this route, though, which falls mostly on the administrator’s lap in the end. Adding extra steps to Darren’s daily routine is something I wanted to avoid, so I started weighing pros and cons.

2. The simpler option on all fronts, was to use a standalone install of WordPress and “fake” the different blogs by using a well structured category hierarchy. I knew this meant I was going to be writing a ridiculous amount of conditional statements in the templates, but it would ease the load on the content management end significantly.

Option 2 was the route I decided to take, which proved to be the right one in the end. Aside from producing lists of popular posts in each category (or in this case, for each blog), everything else was relatively easy to do.

Before I could start building out templates, the categories needed to be re-arranged and sorted accordingly under three main ones. “Cameras and Equipment”, along with “Post Production” already existed. So I merely had to create a new category for “Photography Tips and Tutorials”, then place all other categories under it. With that done, I now had the main three categories in place and started separating them on the front end usingconditional tags and custom loops with query_posts.

If This, Do That

Constructing the sidebar was quite a feat. It took a fair amount of planning and testing to ensure the correct content was being displayed for the page you were looking at. The idea, was to show the most popular and recent posts for the blog you’re reading at the top of the sidebar, followed by most recent posts from the other blogs. This became complicated when we started adding additional pages to each faux blog, along with the posts they already contained.

There’s a single template for the sidebar which houses the content for each blog. The conditional tags tell it which content to display depending on what post or page you’re reading. For content relating to the Photography Tips and Tutorials blog, the conditional statement looks like this…

<?php if(in_category(51) && is_single() || is_subcategory(51) && is_single() || is_page(2694) || is_page(2745) || is_page(2753)) { ?>

What that means in plain English, is this…

“If we’re in category 51 and reading a single post, or in a subcategory of 51 and reading a single post, or reading page 2694, or reading page 2745, or reading page 2753, show this content.”

Similar steps are taken for the other blogs, but obviously the category, post, and page IDs change.

Visually Identifying Content

One of the pros of using a single installation of WordPress and “faking” the blogs, was the ability to use the standard archive indexes. Categories, tags, authors, search results, etc. This was all well and good, but we needed a way to distinguish posts being from different blogs. To do this, I coloured the post title and corresponding links to match that of the blog the post belongs to. For example, if you were to look at

Darren’s archive index, you will notice that posts colours change as you scroll down the page. The same goes for search results, which assume a nearly identical layout.

This effect was easily accomplished using a conditional tag which assigned the appropriate class to the post’s container div depending on the category or subcategory it belongs to.

<div class=”post archive<?php if (in_category(51) || is_subcategory(51)) { echo ‘ tips’; } else if (in_category(10) || is_subcategory(10)) { echo ‘ cameras’; } else if (in_category(8) || is_subcategory(8)) { echo ‘ production’; } ?>”>

Presenting the Right Content

Inside each conditional statement is a custom loop which produces the appropriate content for the given area. Again, using the Photography Tips and Tutorials blog as an example, the sidebar list of recent posts i constructed using the following query_posts…

<?php $recent_tips = new WP_Query(‘cat=51&showposts=5′); ?> <?php while ($recent_tips->have_posts()) : $recent_tips->the_post(); $more = 0; ?> This one is probably a little easier to decipher – show 5 posts from category 51.

Popular posts from each category was another issue all together. There’s no built-in function in WordPress for popular posts, which is still a little baffling. Over the years, there have been changes to how posts are stored in the database, and popular post plugins never seemed to be able to keep up. Doing a quick search will return several results for such plugins, but hardly any of them work with newer versions of WordPress. Of those that do work, none of them did what I needed – produce a list of popular posts for specified categories. That was until I found the brand new, Recently Popular plugin. At the time I stumbled upon it, the functionality I was after wasn’t quite there. But after leaving a comment with my request, the author released a new version within days adding exactly the functionality I desired. Perfect!

Making Content Management Easy

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When it came to the handling the sidebar content, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to approach it. In the past, I’ve done such things as creating a series of pages that make up the different bits of sidebar content. Utilizing the page title and content areas, along with some custom fields. But this was by no means an elegant solution. I was after a solution that was easily comprehensible and simple to use. That’s when I turned to widgets.

I’ve created custom widgets before, but their purpose was merely to give my client the ability to rearrange content form the WP-admin. This time, I wanted Darren to be able to edit the content of each widget from within WP-admin as well as being able to rearrange.

A quick search landed me on this tutorial from WooThemes (registration required to read), which was exactly what I needed. In no time, I had created a set of custom DPS widgets with customizable content.

Similarly, a couple new elements have been added to posts that needed an easy-to-use interface. I started demo’ing plugins that allowed for creating user interface elements that tied into custom fields. Unfortunately, most are now geared towards WordPress 2.7, and DPS is running 2.6.5 for the time being. I ended up finding another great tutorial which demonstrated how to create custom write panels in WordPress.

dps-redesign09-writepanel.jpg

Be Dynamic

Using conditional tags and custom loops via query_posts, you can fairly easy create dynamic content which will help set your blog/site apart. A static sidebar with identical content on every page loses its impact quickly, while one that changes and relates to the content of the post you’re reading will not only catch the reader’s eye as it’s constantly changing, but also serves as a more valuable gateway to connect them to other related content.

How to Redesign a Blog: Redesigning DPS

In this post (the first of two) Web Designer Matt Brett shares some reflections and tips from the process of redesigning my Digital Photography School blog.

When I was approached by Darren to take on the task of not only redesigning, but expanding his Digital Photography Schoolblog, I was thrilled and a little intimidated. I knew it was going to be a massive undertaking on all fronts. With DPS being one of Darren’s largest projects and with it having such a huge following, the pressure was on to deliver a top notch redesign.

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Setting Our Course

Most projects I take on are personal blogs, or brand new sites. Neither of which require a whole lot of planning up front. DPS was different in that it is well established and chalk full of content. Before we settled on a timeline, I thoroughly assessed every step of the project and created an outline that spanned a total of 5 weeks.

  • Phase 1 – Design (7 days)
  • Phase 2 – XHTML/CSS Templates (3 days)
  • Phase 3 – WordPress Development (7-10 days)
  • Phase 4 – Forum Integration (3 days)
  • Phase 5 – Finishing Touches (2 days)

The WordPress Development phase ended up taking a bit longer than anticipated, as we managed to sneak in some new features along the way. Which in turn cut down the amount of time allotted for the forum integration. At the end of it, I had to put in a bit of extra time to tidy up some display bugs (primarily with different versions of Internet Explorer, of course). But overall, we managed to stick pretty closely to the schedule and consider the launch of the new site a success.

It’s All About Structure

One of the most important and underappreciated steps in designing or redesigning any website, is coming up with a solid structure (or layout). Most people call this the wireframing stage, which has been part of my regular routine for years now. Spending a day or two to really flesh out just how you’re going to lay things out not only makes it easier for the client to get a clear picture of where things are headed, but also eases the amount of revisions in the design phase. It’s much easier to move things around and make significant changes when you’re dealing with flat boxes and placeholders.

Before the end of my second day on the project, I delivered a wireframe for the article layout which basically looks like a stripped down version of the final design. After a couple revisions, I took the wireframe and started playing with colours and styles (click image for enlarged view).

dps-redesign09-wireframe-tnail.jpg

Design Direction

It’s always nice when a client gives you free reign to try new things when it comes to design. Darren really didn’t give me a lot of direction in this department, other than to see he wanted something that looked more professional and one of the main goals was to increase usability and readability.

I spent some time checking out the current trends via design showcases, and determined which routes I didn’t want to take. I also peaked around at other photography and camera equipment sites to see what related others in the same field were doing. There seemed to be a lot of stark contrast – typically, sites would be on a solid which background with one dominant colour. Similar to the previous version of DPS which was blue and white.

First on the not-to-do list, was “Don’t use white, anywhere.” With the exception highlights in some of the icons, I stuck to that. Using off-white and beige in place of #fff. It didn’t take long before I started working with some rich browns, and almost gold tones. While this normally wouldn’t be my first choice for a colour scheme, I felt with it being completely different from the previous design and out of the ordinary for this type of site, it might be just what we need for a fresh, new feel.

When Darren mentioned he wanted to split the site up into 3 separate blogs, I immediately thought of doing a unique dominant colour for each. Since “Photography Tips & Tutorials” was basically the catch-all blog and closely resembled what the previous version of DPS was, it made sense to go with blue. From there, I simply went through my colour pallete and chose some other colours that worked well with the rest of the site. Green was a no-brainer, and I wanted to use red for the “Post Production” blog. The problem there, was that it ended up being closer to pink than red, which Darren wasn’t thrilled about. When toned down to more closely match the blues and greens, we ended up with a very muddled red which is closer to brown, but still works (click image for enlarged view).

dps-redesign09-mock01-tnail.jpg

The rest of the aesthetics came together pretty easily. I decided there would be no high gloss or “wet floor” type effects. And instead opted for soft gradients which brought a warm feeling to the site that the stark contrast of the previous version lacked.

On Thursday Matt will continue to reflect upon the redesign of DPS. Stay tuned to ProBlogger’s RSS feed for the 2nd part.

Use Gravatars to Add Personality to Your Blog

In this post Jack Gamble from Babeled sheds some light on a handy service - Gravatars which is a tool that many people are adding to their blogs (I’ve got it operating in the comments section of both TwiTip and Digital Photography School at present).

An important thing to remember as you develop your blog is to build an identity that distinguishes you and your site from the rest of the blogosphere. One tool that can help to accomplish this is the use of Gravatars.

Gravatar is the abbreviation of the phrase “Globally Recognized Avatar.” In short, it is a small image, normally a head shot, of the author or commenter. The Gravatar you chose will be tied to your email address; therefore any enabled site will automatically feature your image next to your comment.

The sense of sight is relied on more so than any other. In a text dominated world, it is difficult to quickly establish an identity with readers in the short time most people will spend on any page of your blog. Think of a newspaper in the editorial column where popular columnists will feature a small photo of themselves next to their articles. This allows the readers to quickly put a face on the writer.

Choose your Gravatar carefully. Don’t pick just any picture. Make use of an image that lends itself to your blog’s identity.

Let’s look at two writers over at Babeled.

gravatar-1.jpgThe first is yours truly. I write under the pen name “Man Overboard.” This name was derived from my former job as a commercial fisherman and it is also a play on words that hints at my tendency to overreact to certain issues.

As you can see, the Gravatar I have chosen shows my ugly mug through a port hole on my old boat making a face that says “don’t take me too seriously.” This small image next to a comment or blog post immediately tells the reader more about me than a full page of text ever could. Above all, it does this while occupying only a very small amount of valuable space.

-2.jpgNext is our very own Cartoonist who goes by the name Keeks. Take one look at his Gravatar, a cartoon self-portrait, and you know everything you need to know about this guy and his obvious sense of humor.

Another reoccurring piece of advice you will commonly receive at ProBlogger is to frequently comment on other blogs. Most sites require you to enter your email and URL to comment. The Gravatar you chose will be tied to your email address, so any enabled site will recognize you and hence your Gravatar image will automatically appear next to your comment. Again, the Gravatar will help to identify you as a face with a personality (and more importantly a blog) of your own. As you make your way throughout the internet, the chances that your Gravatar becomes noticed increases with each comment.

Also, by placing the same picture on your profile at various social media outlets you will increase its visibility and effectiveness. Be sure to use the same profile image for Mixx, Stumble Upon, Reddit, Facebook, and any other social networking tool you employ. Each time you display the image it becomes product placement for your blogging identity.

Gravatars become even more important for multi-author blogs. At Babeled, I am one of many regular writers. My Gravatar, and that of my coauthors, is a useful tool that allows our readers to quickly distinguish between the many personalities that contribute to our various topics. As the comments develop, the Gravatars create the impression of watching a dialogue between two easily identified writers with different points of view.

If you don’t already, I encourage you to enable Gravatars on your site and start using them immediately. You will find this practice very helpful as you strive to separate yourself and your site from the endless sea of bloggers on the internet today.

~Man Overboard

Digital Photography School just got a New Design

Digital Photography SchoolBlog redesigns are always experiences that are mixed with excitement and a little fear – today has been a day for both of those feelings as we launched a new design for Digital Photography School.

The new design includes an expansion from 1 blog to 3, a new portal/aggregation front page, Gravatars in comments and a lot more.

I won’t fully outline it here right now because I’ve asked the designer – Matt Brett (who has been a pleasure to work with) – if he’ll write a post for ProBlogger about it – but you can read my introduction to some of the changes on DPS in a post here.

Thesis WordPress Theme – 20% off Black Friday Sale Now On

If you’re looking to upgrade the design of your blog and are interested in a premium blog design then Thesis is a theme that theme that today you can get a pretty good special price on.

For the first 150 people to take up the offer there’s a 20% discount – IF you use this code in the signup process – 20D03977D0.

update: this has been extended beyond the first 150 people due to large demand. The discount runs out at the end of the day on Friday.

This means that the personal license is $69.60, the developer license (unlimited use of the theme on multiple blogs) is $131.20 and the developer upgrade (if you already have a personal license) is $61.60.

I’ve been using the Thesis theme over at TwiTip and while I’d previously giving it a pretty positive review I am now an even bigger fan. The configurability of this theme is really great. It allows you to set it up in many different formats and by default is configured well for SEO (I started getting search traffic within days).

I’m also pretty impressed by the way that Chris Pearson has been developing the theme over time (it’s up to version 1.3 and 1.4 is coming soon – you get all the upgrades for free) and by the forums that you get access to as a theme owner (I’ve found a few great ideas there).

This price is only available to those using this promotional code – 20D03977D0. Get your theme at the Thesis Page.