In The Beginning

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night-city

The dark-tied, manicured and well-deodorized IBM salesman shook his head gravely. He lent across the table, as though to share a personal confidence, and said in a kindly but authoritative voice: “You need to learn how to use a computer properly!

His suggestion completely side-stepped my question about whether desk-top publishing was possible on IBM compatibles.

I wasn’t convinced.

I wasn’t convinced, because I’d seen what I wanted to do just a few days earlier on the MacPlus at a friend’s house. I’d observed basic typesetting done on a Mac; I’d even had a go myself. Yet here was the IBM salesman, representing the largest computer company on earth, telling me I should ignore what I’d observed with my own eyes, stop asking so many questions and spend more time learning the inner secrets of IBM-PCs.

The year was 1985. Or was it ’86? A long time ago, anyhow.. I’d been appointed Director of a community-based environment group. I did some homework and made some recommendations. One recommendation was to buy a MacPlus. I argued that the money we were spending on typesetting our journal over four issues alone would pay for a new MacPlus and accompanying software. This would enable us to do our own pre-print processing in-house. Much more convenient. Fewer delays. Quality? Amazingly similar.

A no-brainer., you might think? I certainly thought so.

The MacPlus: at the time.. virtually unbelievable

The MacPlus: at the time.. virtually unbelievable

But at the time, I encountered more resistance than I’d imagined likely. There were highly-vocal committee members who hated computers and distrusted the way they’d be used (they had a point, but that’s a much bigger debate that called for nuance, not crass dogamtism). Some argued we shouldn’t be in the business of putting typesetting workers out of a job. (Likewise). Others simply didn’t believe what I was suggesting was possible. Some were doubly suspicious of a computer that didn’t even look ‘serious’.. a computer in jeans, without a tie!

Partly as a stalling exercise, I was asked to evaluate other options. If Apple Macs really could do basic typesetting, presumably the ubiquitous IBM-compatibles could do so too?

I already knew the answer to that.. but off I went on a futile quest to verify the obvious: the proposition that the Apple Mac, in its early days, was a revolutionary new personal computer with capabilities beyond its mainstream competitors.

Now the IBM salesman was talking over my questions and deftly avoiding the crucial issue. He knew – and I knew too – that Macs could do basic typesetting and IBM compatibles couldn’t. But there was no sale in admitting it. So he relied on that old con-trick: an Appeal to Authority. He inferred the problem was with me – not the equipment he sold.

Later that year, my organisation went ahead and bought a Mac. We began typesetting our quarterly periodical in-house. As predicted, the investment was funded through savings within a year or so. We also kept basic financial accounts on the Mac – and it was in almost constant use for writing letters, media releases, producing pamphlets, fliers and posters. Ignoring the advice to “learn to use a computer properly”, we learnt to use our computer EFFECTIVELY. Around the world, thousands upon thousands of other small organizations were making similar choices and having a similar experience. Steve Jobs’ Mac revolution was underway..

Needless to say, a few years later IBM compatible PC’s copied Apple ‘WIMP’ interface and typesetting became possible using Microsoft Windows too. My main antagonist back in the mid-1980s – the guy who’d made my left hell during our Great Mac Debate of 1985/6 – began his own business as a desktop publisher! Not for the first time – or the last – the mainstream corporate world adjusted swiftly to a new reality and embraced it as its own – while those who took the losing side of a debate shamelessly reinvented themselves.

Genesis & Déjà vu

Fast-forward three decades..

“You need to be able to learn how to build websites properly” intone Genesis aficionados, sneering at the ‘drag and drop’ interfaces of competing WordPress frameworks.

This tired old argument begs two simple questions:

  • What does ‘properly‘ mean?
  • Why must web design be done in their preferred way?

If ‘properly’ means expertise in PHP, MySQL, Javascript, CSS, the latest version of HTML as well as graphics programs, server technology etc etc (and that’s before we get round to writing a line of copy or designing a site’s basic structure and appearance) well, then most of us are rooted. We might as well give up now and find other work, leaving web design to ‘experts’.

But not so fast.. how come that in 2013 so many people who lack expertise in many of these fields DO produce attractive, serviceable and effective WordPress-based websites?

The second question is WHY? That’s a slightly different question. Why MUST one tinker with PHP, or Javascript.. or anything else for that matter?

Neolithic tools - revolutionary in their day

Neolithic tools – revolutionary in their day

Surely we use tools, techniques and technologies to accomplish tasks efficiently.

If accomplishing a specific task requires a particular skill or procedure, fair enough, buckle down and get on with it! If it doesn’t, why not use a simpler way? Why fiddle with a log books and a slide-rule if you can easily buy a calculator? Why complicate things that can be simpler?

Yes, some web customization does (still) require high-order “coding skills”. Relax, coders – your skills are not facing imminent extinction.

But when building websites, coding skills – thanks, ironically, to the skill of previous and present-day coders – are becoming less important than design and communication skills. So much of what coders used to do by hand, starting from scratch with a text-editor, has become modularized. To deploy modular components, a designer doesn’t need to know how to build each module, but rather how to deploy them to good effect.

The tools available are now so good that a ‘non-coder’ can accomplish 95+% of the wizardry a coder can do, simply by using modular wizardry. Unlike someone whose primary skills lie in the manipulation of computer code, the person with a design and communication focus has the MOST IMPORTANT focus now that web design technology has become so democratized. Designers should not be embarrassed if they don’t code. All of us – including clients  can be increasingly quizzical about coders’ claims to indispensability.

This is not to disparage coding skills. That’s not the issue here. Clearly the ability to understand and write web languages is a very useful skill in many cases. The issue is whether we must all use tools that require coding skills. I’d argue for most newcomers to web design, folk starting out in 2013, the answer is no. Moreover, folk who do code benefit from using a simple web interface to accomplish many routine tasks.

Centering the nav bar in Genesis - one third of one suggestion..

Centering the nav bar in Genesis – one third of one man’s suggestion..

The most prestigious framework for WordPress to date is probably Genesis by Studiopress. It comes wrapped in mystique, adorned with endorsements from legendary WordPress developers. For a few years now, it’s enjoyed quite remarkable prestige. I’ve encountered it in contract work; it’s the framework specified by a local design firm that’s keen to “be seen to be using the best”.

But is it really the best? Is Genesis the best tool for most WordPress designers, most of the time? Speaking personally, if I never had to work on a Genesis site again that would be fine with me.

Of course, great sites can be – and often are – built using Genesis. As long as you like messing with code, Genesis gives you plenty to mess with. It’s quite easy to make a mess, too. That’s when you jump on the StudioPress forum and beseech The Priesthood to bestow snippets of wisdom and dig you out of a seemingly intractable mess.

Try to center a top navigation bar in your Genesis child theme that by default floats it to the left. No big deal, you may think..

I thought so too. Then I spent a lot of time tinkering, with limited success. In desperation I did some googling to check if others had encountered the same problem. To my amazement, I learnt that yes, others did experience the same problem – lots of them. There’s doubtless a knack to it  which can be gleaned, given enough time and persistence. Learning these little tricks is like initiation into the StudioPress Priesthood. But why should it be so hard to do something so basic?

A framework like Genesis, in essence, functions like a coders’ mutual admiration society, with neophytes in awe of those with greater arcane knowledge.

Genesis users are encouraged to purchase Genesis child themes – either themes created in-house by StudioPress or made by third party developers. Each theme provides users with a ready-built, sophisticated ‘look and feel’. A coder can then get under the bonnet and modify the theme to provide customised functionality – and tweak the design. But the whole point of these themes is they are already “well-designed” – so design customization is really not the main game.

Essentially, I think Genesis is great for people with coding skills who are weak on design skills and like relying on someone else’s design capability. It’s also great for web designers who want to bamboozle their clients. So it serves some useful niche markets, for sure. But how well does it serve the rest of us?

The Apple of today

The rest of us, I suspect, increasingly look elsewhere. There are a few promising options. A full review of these is beyond the scope of this article.

I built websites commercially over a decade ago, then throttled back for a number of reasons; for most of the last decade I’ve kept only an occasional ‘watching brief’ on web design technology.

DMS - the-promise

DMS – the-promise

A decade ago, a rural-based lone operator was very hard-pushed to create great websites that could compete with the work down by larger and best resourced agencies. Back then, the cost of equipment and software was much higher; the range of under-the-bonnet skills needed to make and test professional websites was vast.

About six months ago, I got back into web design as a serious source of income as well as for fun. How things have changed for the better! With affordable access to services such as the Abobe Creative Cloud, I can now use the same tools used by more established, city-based pros. And remember.. a decade ago was an era before WordPress even existed; yes, there were open source content management systems back then, but not for the faint-hearted. Upgrading was NOT point and click, to say the least.

After I jumped back into the fray to ride the latest web wave – responsive design – it took me a few months to establish why I might want to use a ‘framework’. After all, very fine websites can be built directly onto a Twitter Bootstrap skeleton or even using the standard Twenty Twelve WordPress theme as a base. Is it necessary to pay at all for the basic web design technology? (The answer is no – but ‘possible’ isn’t the same as ‘optimal’)

It took another month or so before I was ready to choose a framework, which I now intend to use on most of my WordPress sites unless and until something demonstrably better comes along.

That framework is PageLines.. or at least it was. A few weeks after I’d settled on Pagelines 2 as the best tool-set currently available to design WordPress sites, the imminent launch of PageLines 3 was announced.

At the time of writing, this new design system (not framework!) is still a couple of days away from launch. It’s to have a brand new name: PageLines DMS, which stands for Design Management System. Having already chosen what I considered the best framework, it’s apparently about to get a whole lot better.

This gives me the same gut feeling I had about the Apple Mac, all those years ago.

I may not be backing the best known-horse in the race, but I’m confident it’s a winner!

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  • x3mgroup

    The best article i read today! barvo.

    I indeed do recon all the above (specially, cause i think you’re from the periode as i)

    • James Giroux

      thanks for the comment!

  • James Giroux

    thanks for the feedback!