Back to the Basics – Design Reboot (part 1)

I think I’ve worked out most of the kinks in moving the blog to it’s new home, so I thought I would spend a little time talking about some of the challenges and ideas behind this shift.

But first a little bit of history – I originally started blogging on a free service provided a site called Since this was a hosted service, there was tremendous restrictions placed on what you could and could not do in terms of look and feel. A few months in, the site abruptly shut down and I lost my backup of the posts (( though a partial version can still be found on Bloglines))

Smarting from that loss, I did a little bit of searching and came across Weblogs. It almost was too good to be true – 2 GB storage, full wordpress hosting, FTP access; the works – and all this for free! I shamelessly begged JD for an account and he was kind enough to let me in. Obviously moving from an completely locked down service to Weblogs was like letting a kid loose in a candy store.

I wound up choosing a 3 column theme – strike 1 for visual overload. Next I installed 30-something plugins in my WordPress install – visual overload, strike 2. I then started adding all sorts of “flair” – Flickr photos, feed subscribe widgets, page ranking widgets on and on and on – visual overload, strike 3.

Now in my defence, I should say that alteast initially there was a method to this madness. I saw the blog as a “portal” to my life – a clearing-house if you will, about my online life. You could come here and find out what I was doing (hence a status page). You could look at interesting (ahem) things I had seen. Why you could even find out what the weather outside my window was!

But over time that message got a little muddied – I didn’t update the status page often enough. The blog itself wasn’t updated frequently. And my online “life” was spread far too wide to integrate in any reasonable way into this one page.

It was around this time that two things happened:

1. I actually went and bought this domain name, figuring a guy with some income and a reasonable amount of computer-savvy should really have his own website.

2. I read an article on the Coding Horror on the worst blog cliches – and realized I was guilty of more than half!

It was time to make a clean break with the past. What could I do? I knew I wouldn’t be moving away from WordPress as a platform – it was the only platform I really understood in any way. So that left the look, i.e. the theme and the feel, i.e what content was displayed on the blog.

For the look, I realized the 3 column theme simply did not make sense given the blog is not part of a network of blogs where the 3rd column might display other content. Further, 3 columns just didn’t work well with the way most people read, so it was time to switch to something simpler. A little bit of searching on WordPress Extend yielded the Web2.0 theme that I’m using now.

Reworking how content appears on the blog was two-fold: One, getting rid of the clunky HTML I had wedged into the blog as part of the “flair” (( A difficult and educational experience as it turned out, and the subject of the next post in the series)). Two, KISS – no extraneous cute stuff like widgets or geo-tagging. My plugin list would be more focused on making the back-end more useful. A plugin would either help people find content in the blog (hence, Simple Tags and Popularity Contest) or help with the flow of the post (hence WP Footnotes) or provide missing functionality (Contact Forms etc.) (( I remember reading somewhere that a lot of programmers think parenthetically – which comes out a lot when they write 🙂 ))

The final piece of this puzzle was making sure I actually built up the blog the right way instead of constantly editing and adding on a live install. This way, if I screwed up (and there were quite a few restarts) or changed my mind, a do-over was simply a question of restoring a backup. The answer to this came in the form of WAMP Server – which made the otherwise nightmarish process of getting Apache-MySQL-PHP running on Windows (( The instructions for getting Apache running on Windows on the Apache site just don’t work)) a simple, push-the-button affair.

There were some difficult choices along the way – for example, do I put in the Flickr photos widget or not? My stats tracking on the old blog revealed there was a decent amount of click-through from the blog to some of the photos. Why lose that traffic? The answer to that goes back to the original idea – can my blog be a portal? My own experience says no – our online lives are now too widespread, too entrenched in each of the websites we frequent to easily co-exist. It could be made to work – if you were willing to live with a page that a lot of competing visual elements. But few things are more attractive than a website that does one thing – and does it well 🙂 .

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