New Design for SilverPen

Last January (2009), I created the FaceBook and MySpace pages, made some modifications to the site, and announced my goals for the upcoming year. I wanted to write books, commit to regular publishing of blog articles, and invest in or create an online community of writers. The first few months of this went relatively well, but it became abundantly clear that my site wasn’t really up to the challenge. It was too limiting, too basic, and what’s worse, I had no idea how to fix it.

Enter Ryan Burrell, stage left. Ryan and I have been friends since junior high, but we never really did much together until after he graduated college. Through a strange series of events, we found ourselves with mutual friends and spending more time together. And while I was leaving my cocoon and struggling my way into writing regularly, Ryan was becoming a well sought after web designer.

When he offered to create a new design for SilverPen, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to abuse our friendship, and I know that web design is both a difficult art and an expensive one. His offer was incredibly generous, and I didn’t feel comfortable accepting.

At the same time, friends should trust each other, and my own attempts at modifying themes had failed miserably due to my lack of knowledge. I finally accepted Ryan’s offer, and he has blown me away with what he came up with.

Take a look around and know that the extent of my guidance to him was, “I really like the colours from this other theme… dark brown and blue, though I’m not devoted to them. And I want the body text of articles to be decently wide, though that doesn’t really apply to the front page.” I also had a list of things I wanted; things like… the stuff I write. And threaded comments (which is built into WordPress). And a Currently Working On section.

So, given what he had to work with, Ryan did phenomenally well. I wasn’t of much help in this.

New Features

I’m really excited about everything this theme has to offer, so let me give you a tour. Ryan suggested removing the traditional Categories and Archives from the front page and/or sidebar(s), as they take up a lot of room but aren’t always needed. Instead, he created a slider bar attached to the header to serve those purposes. Click on Topics and it will drop down to show the various categories used for posts. Clicking on Archives will show the most recent six months as well as a link to all archives. This is not only more aesthetically pleasing than just having everything listed in the sidebar, it also saves a lot of space and is just a neat feature.

Click on the words Archives or Topics to see the archives by month or the categories, respectively.
Click on the words Archives or Topics to see the archives by month or the categories, respectively.

The footer has been drastically expanded and now includes a bit more about how this site is licensed and what you can do to help. In addition, I’ve got a blogroll of sorts now and the Momentarily Featured is really five random articles, displayed with the hope that older pieces will get read once in a while.

The Currently Working On section is a special one that will contain updates on… well, what I’m working on. I’ve usually got five projects going at the same time, so this will change on a regular basis as I move between them. In addition, there is also a Latest Entries section on the front page to display what has been published recently.

When you add those three sections on the front page to the sticky-notesesque thing at the top of the sidebar, that makes four unique sections for displaying content.

Taking the pressure off

WordPress is geared primarily to act as blogging software, and as such the default emphasis of a WordPress site is on the blog articles. The problem is that I really hate having blog entries on my front page because there is often information I want to share for longer than the latest entry’s common lifespan. Without a decent body of static text on the front page, I can’t post long term updates very easily, and some blog entries might get lost in the shuffle (if I publish too often, for instance).

With the theme I was using, I had two options. The default was to have multiple blog entries on the front page, and I generally ranged between four and ten. Part of me likes having multiple entries available because then people can just read without having to load new pages. Obviously, this didn’t make me happy for a front page, but I like it in theory, and that’s why there’s a Journal button up top for those people who like to see a traditional blog page.

I was never able to figure out for myself what to put here, but Ryan excels at designing and stocking web site footers.
I was never able to figure out for myself what to put here, but Ryan excels at designing and stocking web site footers.

The second option was to only display the most recent blog entry on the front page. After Ryan suggested that I limit the display so people might actually have a chance of seeing my footer, I agreed that this was the better of the two options. The downside to this is that it puts a great deal of emphasis on that single blog entry, and if I update (even just a short, quick note about something that happened that day), it would push that original article off the front page. I schedule updates three times a week, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 4:30 a.m. (because that seems to be before most people start accessing my site), but sometimes I want to write something Monday afternoon, or on Tuesday. If I did, whatever I wrote 1) Would displace what was currently there and 2) Wouldn’t be visible for very long at all.

Of course, the solution is what you see now, but I had neither the means nor the knowledge to create a page template that met my goals. I kept hearing and reading about how easy all this was, but I’m a writer, not a designer or programmer, and despite hours of strain and trial/error, I couldn’t make it work. This front page layout is the most significant improvement to SilverPen and will make the greatest difference in how the site is organized and maintained. I’m excited about its automated features, but I’m also really curious to see what I think of to do with it in the next year as I come to understand how it works and how it influences my work. What will it be like when I don’t feel like my web site design is holding me back?

Demanding Excellence

Working with a real designer has been an eye-opening experience, and much of the recent series on design was inspired by this process. Because I don’t have the sort of intelligence that lends itself to understanding or facilitating visual art and/or design, it is remarkable to me that I could provide such little guidance and Ryan could turn those ideas into what you see here. When I first saw what he had come up with, I was startled and a little uncomfortable: it didn’t seem anything like me because it was too good. At the same time, I was excited because it was just so neat.

I hope you’ll like the new design as well as I do, because it’s going to stick around for a good long while. Previous theme changes at SilverPen were because I was never satisfied with what I was able to find for free, but this custom design changes all that. Every need and desire has been met, and it Just Works™.

If you’re curious about the importance of design and my thoughts on its purpose, power, and presence, I encourage you to read the collaborative conversation we have recently completed on the topic. A good site design makes a world of difference, and I’m anxious to see how it impacts my visitors. I know that its excellence demands more from me than my previous theme(s)–that is to say, this new design demands higher quality writing from me, and in a greater quantity. There’s no going back now. I will meet my goals and use this site to its full potential.

Ryan has dubbed this theme Publicity. I think that I shall refer to it as Tallgeese.

Why I don’t care about Facebook changes

I have to admit, I underestimated Facebook at first. As a User Support Specialist at Missouri State University, I was given the opportunity to beta test Facebook before it was released to everyone. You might remember that Facbook was only available to colleges in its infancy, and so the creators wanted to make sure it worked for colleges while at the same time we wanted to make sure we wanted it on our campus.

At that time, you had to have a .edu email address to create an account on Facebook, and the institution in question had to agree to let their students log in (else their email address wouldn’t have been able to create an account). That was all thrown out the window a year or so later when Facebook was opened up to high school students, then business users, then everyone.

I’ve seen every change Facebook has undergone since it was first shown to the public, and I’ve also seen the backlash and subsequent responses of the Facebook team as the community has struggled with a fluid service that is constantly undergoing changes. Every change, no matter how small, elicits an outcry from people who will quit the service if the change isn’t rolled back, followed immediately by a flurry of rumours that Facebook will soon start charging for its use. Everyone freaks out constantly about this free service that has set the bar for a successful social networking site.

And I just don’t care. That isn’t quite as flippant a statement as it seems, because I often wondered why I didn’t care. I’m not in love with Facebook (when we first tested it, I thought it was a rather shallow service and didn’t see the point–I especially disliked how locked down it was, a walled garden of social networking), but I certainly use the service to schedule events and parties, send out announcements to groups, and check in to see how my friends are doing and what they’re up to. So if I use it, why don’t I care? Why haven’t I joined the slavering masses, a’feared that my primary social networking service is going to be destroyed by megalomaniacal despots?

I guess because I never really took ownership of my Facebook page. Similar to my MySpace account, I saw it as complementary to my primary online presence and never came to rely on it. My personal website is my core, and these are just extra services to help me connect with people.

It is the relationships and lines of communication I have established with others that makes these services worthwhile, not their appearance, arrangement, or colours. To that end, Facebook has finally improved their messaging service to make it quick and reliable, it auto-imports my blog entries via RSS, and its group feature is pretty decent. I can find people easily and they can find me. Beyond that, I don’t care.

They can do whatever they want to the home page, the photos, and how the information is displayed on the screen. I generally find their changes to be acceptable and even pleasant down the road, and though I don’t particularly like the current iteration (having status updates be front-and-center like a Twitter feed; I particularly dislike that when I click “notes” on the left, I only see other people’s notes, and getting to my own is more difficult now), my life doesn’t exist on Facebook. My online presence isn’t centered there.

That’s why I made a website to begin with. I was tired of Livejournal and Xanga jerking me around, screwing with my stuff, so I sought out autonomy. If you get all worked up about social networking services jacking with your pages, maybe you need to move your web presence elsewhere. Climb over the wall, take some control back, and quit’cher’bitchin’. You don’t own Facebook and never will, so if you really want to take ownership and make something how you want it to be, go out and do it.

And along those lines, if you’re looking for a designer for your site, I can recommend a top notch one 😉 He’ll make you something beautiful and it’ll be all yours.

Collaborative Conversations

I first heard of this idea when my friends Steve and Ryan began cross-posting one anothers’ blog articles to their own respective websites. Though I had trouble at first understanding what was going on, it turned out that they (and one other person, if I have put the pieces together correctly) were undertaking to have a sort of conversation through their blog posts.

The goal of this “conversation” is more inspirational than focused on dialogue, and so the format goes like this:

  1. Someone picks a rather broad topic.
  2. Everyone writes essays that fall under that topic.
  3. Everyone cross-posts the other participants’ essays to their own site.

So rather than commenting on or responding to one another’s articles, this series of blog articles is more to force the writers a bit beyond their established zones of comfort and familiarity. With someone else setting the tone and topic, one might find themselves writing on subjects previously left untouched.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked Ryan if he would be interested in collaborating on a series of articles with me. He has been working on a new site design for SilverPen and the entire process has left me deep in thought about the value of design to the content creator. Out of these thoughts, I had ideas for about half a dozen articles, but they were all from my point of view and I really wanted to hear something from a designer living on the other side of the fence, so to speak.

Ryan instead suggested I join their conversation, soon to begin on the topic The Purpose, Power, and Presence of Design, and I agreed.

For the next few weeks at SilverPen, expect to see articles written not just by myself on the value of design, but by several other bloggers whom I respect and appreciate. I would encourage you to not just read their articles, but to visit their websites, browse around a bit, and subscribe to their RSS feeds.

And as always, don’t hesitate to join the conversation!

Table of Contents

  1. The Purpose, Power, and Presence of Design by Ryan Burrell
  2. Design Speaks Directly to the Soul by Matthew Stublefield
  3. Designing a Path to Identity by Steve Moore
  4. Poor Design Stymies Communication by Matthew Stublefield
  5. “It Takes All Kinds” or “Maybe You Can’t Design” by Matthew Stublefield
  6. Design as a Weapon by Ryan Burrell
  7. It’s The Thought That Counts by Matthew Stublefield
  8. Branding Emotionally by Matthew Stublefield