AJ Dyrbye

Web Developer and Digital Humanist

Tag: wordpress

An Ode to WordPress

At my current position, I work primarily in Joomla. In fact, I’d never worked in Joomla before this job.

It was a bit of a shock to the system, to put it mildly.

Though I’ve grown to appreciate many things about it as a CMS, such as the module system it uses for adding content, the more familiar I get with it, the more things drive me up the wall. But this post isn’t about Joomla. Continue reading

Child Themes, or, When Developing From Scratch Drives me Crazy

Over the weekend, I started work on my new spare-time project, developing a new theme for this site.

My current theme is, to put it mildly, driving me batty. It started life as a learner theme I developed in my course work for the SkillCrush WordPress Developer Blueprint. Though I’ve put a lot of work into it so far, there is a great deal left just to get it up to speed for what I actually need from my website. While I’d love to keep working on it, I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns: focusing on fixing it up is holding me back. It’s time to move on.

Thus, in the interest of Actually Getting Stuff Done on this website, I’m now working with a free, responsive preexisting theme that, rather than having to constantly bug-hunt and develop, I can adapt to my needs instead. In addition, I find it fascinating to see how a more established developer constructs a theme.

In my (admittedly still limited) experience, child themes are an entirely different kettle of fish than developing from scratch. I have found that it’s a process of discovering design decisions, and exploring what’s possible by trying out what I’d like to implement, and observing what works and what breaks it. It’s become pretty clear that while I can bend a theme to my own preferences, that theme can only flex so far – any changes I make have a ripple effect on the very character of the theme.

For example, I spent Sunday working on a child for Anders Noren’s Radcliffe only to abandon it. As much as I like the simplicity of the theme, it’s a single-column design. Radcliffe’s design is blog-forward, promoting visual hooks and strong titles to entice readers to click on a post. It’s got a beautiful navigation aesthetic for the top of the site, but it pushes all the widgets down to the bottom. Since I use widgets pretty heavily to welcome visitors, promote my social media presence and provide capsule information about what my interests and strengths are, I can’t afford to promote my blog posts above all else as the design intends.

With that in mind, I decided to try adding a left or right column, to blend the visual appeal of its body column with the sidebar I need to effectively convey who I am and what I’m about. Several hours of tweaking and codex-searching later, I discovered that adapting Radcliffe to accommodate just one sidebar isn’t practical the time I have allotted for this project.

And so, I learn and move on.

It’s hardly wasted time, however. The joy of WordPress is that if I find a theme I like, odds are good that the same designer has another one with a comparable aesthetic that suits better. In this case, I’ve simply selected a new theme with which to begin again: Hemingway, another of Anders Noren’s themes with a similarly clean aesthetic and a pre-established support for a two-column layout. It shouldn’t take more than an evening to transition the changes I made to Radcliffe over to Hemingway, and then I can move on to other things.

Aside from experimenting with sidebars, I’d merely re-implemented my landing page and was beginning on colours, fonts and layout for the rest of the site. I also have custom archive, post, 404 and portfolio pages planned, which should be much faster to implement now that I’m not having to reinvent the wheel. If I haven’t broken anything too badly by this time next week, I’m aiming to take it live.

And then, the real fun finally begins: adding some of that JavaScript functionality I’ve been learning. Speeding up my site’s load times. Designing a logo for myself. In short, doing all the stuff I couldn’t do because I was caught up on how much I still needed to do just on my learner theme.

Thank goodness for WordPress’ theme library, and its child theme support. With the shift in focus they permit, it’s not going to be long at all before I can start looking seriously at from-scratch theme development again. In the mean time, I’ll have a fully functional site I don’t have to cringe at.

Win-win.

Github repository

Quick update: As of today, all code and other associated files I created for my Masters thesis are available on Github.

This includes not only the final thesis, but also the full code for the case study website I developed as the project portion of the thesis. As such, it provides an example of my work in XHTML, HTML5, CSS, CSS3, PHP and MySQL dating from 2012 and 2013.

…And we’re live!

This is a Big Deal moment for me.

You, gracious stranger, are reading the very first post I have ever written from a blog hosted on a domain I own, on a WordPress install I created, with a theme I have customized.

This is a work in progress. I’m still straightening out the kinks, polishing up the CSS and working out the inevitable bugs.

Nevertheless, I’m pretty proud of it.

So, why a domain? Why WordPress? Why now?

The long and short of it is, I have been working on websites for four years now, and I find that I rather like it. I’ve built up a portfolio, one I sincerely hope will continue to grow.

In particular, I have worked on two WordPress sites as web developer in the last year. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the plugin environment, and the flexibility the child themes permit.

I wanted a portfolio site that would let me run with my strengths, and give me one more way to show that I know my stuff. This site is that opportunity.

As for the why now, the great, and terrifying, thing about being web developer on those two sites is that it’s been an exercise in learning what I still have to learn. I’ve had to pick up everything from security to SEO to customizing with child themes. It’s a different beast indeed from hand-coding a site and trying to work out what

I realized pretty quickly that I needed a way to plug the knowledge gaps I didn’t know about. I also realized that the sheer volume of information out there was getting in the way. While I have no regrets whatsoever for taking a Humanities Computing degree, I’m by no means a computer scientist. I’m still learning what many of the components look like and how they fit together, never mind what the abbreviations are, or which ones are programmer in-jokes.

And so, when Skillcrush announced a WordPress developer course, I decided to take the leap. It’s steadily filling in those gaps, including the ones I needed to build this site.

It’s an exciting time. I love having new things to dig into, and it’s thrilling to be able to showcase new skills so directly.

Thanks for reading, and for letting me share my enthusiasm with you.

On Creating in WordPress

A Few Thoughts on WordPress versus Hand-Coding

In the last several months, I’ve had the opportunity to go in-depth with WordPress as a web development platform. 

This represented a departure for me. Ever since I first learned HTML, back in the days of Geocities and table-based layouts, I’ve been most at ease hand-coding my pages. While I’ve used web development software before, I appreciate the control and depth of understanding hand-coding permits.

Which is not to say that it is without drawbacks. Designing and modifying a website in a text processor is time-consuming, even with a modular design and PHP to stitch it all together. It’s easy to introduce errors; all it takes is one mis-spelled semantic element, or misremembering one piece of CSS syntax. I’ve spent many hours tweaking box element positions on a stylesheet even when all is going well.

Yet, it’s easy, too easy, for me to get caught up with layouts and structure at the expense of the site as a whole. Spelling and grammar are harder to proof, for one. More critically, it’s harder to step back to see the overall effectiveness of a site when I’ve spent hours working with lines of code for just one part of one page. To be fair, some of that may be an artifact of being just one person, and never mind one who is still learning in many respects.

By contrast, working with WordPress emphasizes content. Instead of creating a layout from scratch, users choose a preset. Instead of writing a new file for each page, users choose from a short list of templates, then proceed immediately to formatting their text and adding media. 

It is simultaneously restrictive and strangely freeing.

When I started working with the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum project, they had no website to speak of, just a space on the University of Alberta’s ARC servers and a WordPress install. All it took for me to get the site roughed in and ready for project content was a Skype call with the coordinating committee and a few afternoons of creating pages, setting up menus and roughing in the sidebars with example content. By contrast, it took me weeks of dedicated work to get the case study website I designed for my thesis structured and styled.

Despite the time it took to get the formatting just so in WordPress’ page editor (amazing disappearing non-breaking spaces! Header tags mysteriously applied to whole paragraphs!), it was almost absurdly fast to get each new page populated and ready to go. No messing with positioning, no time spent searching out where I missed a close tag in an unordered list, no playing around with formatting individual CSS classes, just a polished page. 

I’m of two minds on this. It’s great to have it done in relatively short order, ready for the world to see. However, I feel like I’ve invested very little of myself in the pages, beyond the images and text. With WordPress, and especially with the free version I’m currently using, there is a limited capacity to alter layouts, change fonts, experiment with colour schemes, or refine how the pages behave under various devices or browsers. 

It’s great to have a portfolio up and running so quickly, but at the same time, I built my first one from scratch for good reason. It was a chance to not only demonstrate that I can build a competent, if basic, website from scratch, but also a place to refine and practice my HTML and CSS. That said, I also learned a great deal from running the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum site as an admin; it gave me the broader view of good site design by distancing me from the level of code.

I’m still deciding how I want to go forward from here. I like WordPress, despite its limitations, even though I miss getting deep into the code level. Yet, I still value my old portfolio, and I regret the loss of both it and my thesis case study website with the end of my university hosting.

Perhaps it’s simply time to invest in a domain and hosting. Transfer over my older work, and give myself the ability to effect greater control over my WordPress work. Worst case scenario? I develop a passion for WordPress theme development.

© 2014 - 2016 AJ Dyrbye

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