WordPress 2.0 Theme Competition – winners announced

I’ve got a cold and accidentally took Night Nurse instead of Day Nurse, so apart from the general blearghness of the cold, I’m a bit dopey. If I start rambling incoherently, you know why.

But that isn’t what I was going to say. The winners of the WordPress theme competition I entered have been announced. No prize for me. No surprise there; my theme was probably rather too simple and rather too derivative of Kubrick, quite apart from the fact I only discovered too late that it didn’t display properly on some versions of IE/Windows.

Some comments about the themes that did win, which hopefully don’t come across as sour grapes:

The overall winner was Durable. I’ve mentioned this before when I was talking about Ajax. I think the use of Ajax is indeed very impressive, although the most striking thing – allowing users to change every detail of the colouring – seems like a bit of a gimmick. Aesthetically I think it’s fine but not exceptional. Overall, though, a fair winner.

Runner up was Kurtina. Personally I think this is a near-miss. The visual focus seems wrong to me; the strong blue-green draws the eye to the top of the sidebar and the line under the header, rather than either the title of the blog or the content. Just tweaking the colours would help a lot. I do think the trend to have the first entry in full and the following ones as exceprts is quite a good one though.

2nd runner up was Ambiru. This might be my favourite. Classy, stylish, attractive. Very nice.

Most Creative was Foliage. I thought this could have scored higher as well. It doesn’t seem to work very consistently in the theme browser, but assuming that’s just a problem with the browser, I like this a lot. It looks cool, the way all the sidebar stuff is hidden in a drop-down box at the top of the screen makes a lot of sense, and the focus is firmly on the content. Nice.

Best three-column design went to Tiga which, frankly, is a complete mess. It seems to be heavily customisable (colours, fonts, header size) through the Admin panel, which is nice for users who don’t like mucking around with their CSS, but it shows no sign of actual design at all.

Best two-column design went to Disconnected. I don’t get it. I mean, I don’t see what the theme is trying to do. It has lots of styling but no coherent look, for me. The diagonal stripey bits at the bottom of the sidebar boxes seem particularly pointless.

Best see of coloursDapit Hapon. Here, I have to strongly disagree with the judges. I think this is an example of very bad use of colour. The colours chosen don’t particularly complement each other – although they’re all browns, they’re rather different browns and they don’t work well together. But nor do they provide strong effective contrasts. A very odd choice.

Best Liquid DesignDarkPad. Well, it’s a liquid design. I don’t think it has much else going for it.

With CSS, it makes it very easy to style every element of your design separately – lists, links, columns, posts, comments, etc etc. I think the most common failing of people’s themes is that they actually do that; everything is styled in some way; a little border, a background colour, a graphic. And even if each detail is very subtle and tasteful, the combined effect of every part of the design being styled is usually that it’s a mess.


Announcing Macaws 1.0

I probably should have played safe and released it as 0.1, but never mind. Since the WordPress 2.0 Theme Competition is now closed for entries, it seems like a good moment to officially release the theme I entered. It’s already available on the Official WordPress Theme Viewer, but you can also get it from my own specially set up demo blog, Heraclitean Fire Themes. There’s a permanent link in the sidebar.

I’m not planning to release any of the themes I use on this blog. Where’s the fun in designing your own personal website if it’s not unique?


New theme, again.

I expect you’ve noticed the site looks different. Unless you read it through an RSS reader, of course. Much as I like the scarab design, I think it’s a bad thing that the title is liable to get pushed off the bottom of the window on smaller screens and browsers with too many toolbars. That certainly happened in some of the internet cafes I visited in Spain. And I fancied a change.

As ever, if you prefer the old look, there’s a theme switcher in the sidebar. And I haven’t tested this theme on Windows (or very thoroughly on any browsers other than Safari) so if you think something is displaying wrong, let me know. The photo is by NaNoWriMo-ist, whalewatcher, playwright and candy blogger Cybele May.


WordPress Theme Competition

The WP theme comp I mentioned entering before seems to have been a peculiarly elaborate hoax, though I can’t see what they gained from it. Anyway, there’s now a new WordPress Theme Competition set up by people miffed at the collapse of the last one. I’ll probably enter it – after all, the alternative is just releasing my theme. The prizes are less exciting, but at least they exist.

Me Other

Ajax and the common man

One of the hot new(ish) things in web design is Ajax – standing for Asynchronous Javascript And Xml. To quote Wikipedia, “The intent is to make web pages feel more responsive by exchanging small amounts of data with the server behind the scenes, so that the entire Web page does not have to be reloaded each time the user makes a change.” You’ll have seen the results on websites like Flickr, where you can edit the descriptions on your photos without having to load a new page. An impressive example of an Ajax-rich WordPress theme can be seen here; click on the buttons at the top to get the full effect.

Which is great, of course. Except that one of the joys of the internet is its accessibility for the casual user who wants to make a webpage. HTML is, really, an extremely simple system to use. CSS means a bit more to learn, but once you get the hang of it, it actually makes your life easier. And that’s all you need to arrange content on a page. If you just want to create a static webpage, you can do it entirely from scratch just with HTML and CSS, and how good the content is and how good it looks are entirely up to you.

Even using software like WordPress, it’s easy enough to just use some knowledge of HTML and CSS to restyle the output. The software is built in PHP, and you just have to work around the PHP tags, moving them around as necessary; it’s usually obvious from context what they do. So you can completely change the look of a site without doing any of what I’d call real coding. The various changes to the appearance of this site and its predecessors have all been done without me knowing any PHP. Ajax kills that, as far as I can tell; hacking around a theme to change the styling becomes a suddenly much more technical exercise.

I completely see the point of Ajax – when it’s used well, it transforms the user experience. And I’m not suggesting that anyone stop using it just for my sake. New software makes it easier and easier for people who know little about computers to share their thoughts and pictures on net; it’s just an unfortunate side-effect that as the software gets more sophisticated, it gets harder for a dabbler like me to get my hands dirty and tinker with the machinery.

I guess it’s a natural progression with all technologies. In the early days of motoring, you *had* to know how to do basic repairs to your car by the side of the road, and the engine was simple enough that you could probably do it with a couple of spanners and a can of oil. The fact that cars are now so reliable that you barely need to know how to check your oil and tyre pressure is a Good Thing, of course. But it still seems a pity when things get professionalised out of people’s hands to the point where they never get to do things themselves from scratch, whether it’s baking bread or creating a webpage.

Culture Other

My latest web design bonnet-bee

I was looking through WordPress themes on the Codex. I find it surprising how many people design themes with flexible-width text columns – i.e. ones where the columns get wider and narrower when you resize the browser window. One of the first things you learn when you pick up a book on typography is that if there are too many or too few words per line, the text becomes difficult to read. That’s one of the reasons newspapers divide up their articles into columns; with such small text, columns running the full width of the page would make it very difficult for the reader.

Picking a book at random off my shelves (a biography of Lewis Carroll, as it happens), it has about 13 words a line. On my computer, this blog has about 15 words/line. I can’t control how it will look on other system/browser combinations, but hopefully it doesn’t have many more than that. But this online version of Ulysses, with the browser window at a fairly typical width for me, had 24 words/line; and more if I stretch the window. That’s just silly.

Web design isn’t the same as traditional typography, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. I just can’t see any advantage to flexible-width columns that would make up for the loss of control over how the text looks – and indeed the overall look of the page. Either decide to support people with small screens, or not, but pick a page-width and stick to it. Of course, if useless bloody Internet Explorer supported the max-width property, that would be a good solution, but you have to work with what you’ve got.