Blog Design and the Move to Pearson’s Thesis Theme

A few weeks ago fellow blogger, Robert Moore, inquired about my latest theme.  I understand the curiosity given the recent unveiling of a custom design  back in December.  Hell, I’ve been changing themes on a regular basis since I started blogging back in 2005.  For one reason or another I was never satisfied with the design, and although I know a bit of HTML, it was never enough to shape a template in a way that proved to be satisfactory over the long term.  For a long time I wanted a blog theme that was both flashy but still had a professional feel to it.  You may disagree, but I think the look of your blog is important in maintaining the reader’s focus and attention.  I left Blogger and Typepad because most of their themes have a juvenile/cartoonish look.  With Typepad you had to pay much more to access CSS to make the most basic of changes.  After a while it seemed like a waste of money.  One of the things I was looking for when I moved to WordPress was the opportunity to have access to literally thousands of free themes.  I soon learned that the vast majority are just downright ugly, but my bigger concern was with my lack of knowledge of CSS and HTML.  You end up in a position where you are uploading a theme coded by an unknown individual who you have no interaction with in case of problems.  Simply put, I didn’t know what I would be playing around with and it left me feeling very uncomfortable.  One exception (and I know there are others) is the Tarski Theme, which I really like.  Of course, content is everything, but there is something to be said for the aesthetics of a blog as well as its functionality.

One day in January while browsing WordPress themes I came across Chris Pearson’s Thesis Theme.  I was immediately struck by the simple yet sophisticated look of the basic template as well as the typeface and clean lines.   Of course, I hesitated when I saw the price tag of $85 since I recently shelled out some cash for the custom design.  Luckily I was staring at a check for a recent book review and decided to go for it and, since doing so,  I’ve had no regrets.  The cost comes with free lifetime upgrades as well as a very active community of users who share their own customizations on message boards (only available to registered users) as well as video.  What I love most about the theme are the interfaces that allow you to change basic features of the site without any tinkering with the HTML and CSS.  Thesis actually utilizes a system of “hooks” which allow you to make changes to stylesheets that function independently from the CSS page.  As you can see I haven’t customized my site much further than the basic template, but at some point when I have more time I will begin to play around.  I would like to get a custom banner up as well as a few other things.  Part of the reason I haven’t found the time to do so is because I absolutely love the look of my blog.  Again, there is a simplicity that I find very attractive.  Best yet, since I moved to Thesis I’ve noticed the number of comments has steadily increased.  Could it be the design?  It’s the same thought-provoking/kick-ass commentary that you’ve come to appreciate so that can’t be it.

I’ve also come to realize that less is more in terms of sidebars.  I used to use a three-column layout with as much content crammed in as possible.  This is a huge mistake and I’ve been slashing away at my sidebars over the past few months.  First, few people actually take the time to click the links.  More importantly, depending on what is included in your sidebars often leads to a longer load time and that usually results in a frustrated reader.  Visually, the focus should always be on the content.  I remember reading that blogs load left to right so if you have a lot of junk in the sidebar it means that your post column may take longer to appear.  Use one column, place it to the right and figure out what is absolutely necessary and trash the rest.  If you take a good look at my sidebar what you will find are features that promote social networking.  I include links to some of my favorite blogs, but other than that the goal is to encourage increased networking for me as well as my readers: Google Friend Connect, Library Thing and my personal social networking feed (Lifestream).  In the end, that’s what this is all about.

Of course, you may think differently so feel free to share.

18 comments… add one

  • I totally agree that two-column themes are less crowded. I think the new template looks great!

  • David Woodbury Feb 21, 2009

    I’ve liked a number of your “looks” over the last year or two, and some of them I didn’t care for. This one is nice and clean, is easy to read, and inviting. For the most part, I find it distracting when people keep changing themes (maybe I’m rationalizing my own laziness in that area). It’s like when your favorite newspaper changes its fonts, layout, and departments in a desperate attempt to slow the inevitable demise of printed newspapers — the loyal readers who actually still buy the paper just find it annoying.

    Of course unlike newsprint, blogging is on the rise, and these aesthetic considerations may be important for first-time visitors. Ultimately, it’s going to be the content that causes them to pause before moving on, and determines whether they return.

    I like blogs that keep it simple, so you can find the information and instantly see what’s what. Your new sidebar is an improvement in its simplicity (too much content and too many graphics or icons, and it becomes one of those too-busy web pages).

    Thumbs up on the Thesis Theme.

    David

  • Victoria Bynum Feb 21, 2009

    I like your blog design, too, and it’s helpful to get insights into what works and doesn’t work to make these things user-friendly. As for me, I’m still learning how to navigate the technology as well as create a readable site.

    Vikki

  • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2009

    Thanks for the positive feedback.

    Vikki,

    In the end it really is a matter of preference. I spent a few minutes looking at your layout and thought I would make a few suggestions. Place the “Recent Posts” and Recent Comments” sections at the top along with the search bar. Than place your blogroll and other features. Once you’ve written enough posts you may want to single out your favorites, which will give a new visitor a sense of what your blog is about. I highly recommend placing a “Share This” widget on your site. You can find mine at the end of each post. This gives your reader the chance to share your post with a bunch of social networking sites such as Facebook, Digg, etc. You should already be placing a link on your Facebook site for each post. You’ve probably had a chance to browse other blogs. The biggest mistake you can make is to place useless banners in your sidebar such as “Civil War Interactive”, “Top Civil War Sites” etc. These badges do not benefit your site in any way. All they do is slow down the loading time.

    Finally, at some point you may want to consider purchasing your own domain name for the site and transfer your site to the self-hosted WordPress.org. This gives you complete control of your site and it looks more professional compared to .wordpress.com url.

    For now, continue to enjoy the format. I don’t know if you attended the SCWH luncheon at this year’s Southern in New Orleans where I presented a talk on blogging. Having someone of your caliber experiment with this format was just what I was hoping for. :)

  • Robert Moore Feb 22, 2009

    Kevin,

    There is no doubt, the current look here is very clean, while my site has grown cluttered. I need to move away from the three column theme and I have already started to reduce the “noise” that graphics have created on my site. Another thing that I battle with is the background color issue. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer the darker backgrounds to white backgrounds (and I’m thinking about moving in that direction as I am slowly transitioning Cenantua’s Blog to its own domain). Although, they have to be done just right… too dark is a turn-off, in my opinion. I think the flip to darker backgrounds also creates an obvious disconnect from the traditional practice of dark ink on white paper. As I like to argue, the Web “ain’t your grandaddy’s printing press.” People, I think, look at the Web too often as something that runs parallel to print media. Granted, among a few other standard Web features in our blogs (that one won’t find in print media, hyperlinks should make it clear that this isn’t the case, but I’m not sure it is enough. I think we need to make it obvious that blogs, just as an example, are a more dynamic move away from print media. On the other hand, I think gradual shifts such as what you present here, in your new layout, might make that transition a little easier for folks.

    I need to revisit something that I saw not too long ago on the Interactive Design Asssociation’s ListServ about the use of dark backgrounds and the way people generally receive them. I wonder… what is everybody’s opinion here when it comes to white backgrounds and darker backgrounds?

  • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2009

    Robert,

    I think the darker background focuses the eye more effectively on the content. The color I am using seems ideal and I like that very narrow shadow on the border. I still think the bigger issue is functionality. For example, Brett Schulte (TOCWOC) uses the cutline theme w/ three columns. The left hand column has so many banners and blog directories that it sometimes takes upwards of a minute to load the page. I emailed him about this some time ago. Perhaps it’s a problem on my end. I’ve been meaning to email you about your own site. The number of book images sometimes slows down the load time. You already have a link to your cv, which makes the thumbnail images a bit superflous. Of course, I understand why you would want to feature them. You also have a large number of thumbnail images of your favorite CW books. You may want to check out LibraryThing. It allows you to build community and they give you a number of custom options for their blog widget – just a thought.

    The move should be easy to the self-hosted version of WordPress and I highly recommend checking out Thesis.

  • Robert Moore Feb 22, 2009

    Kevin,

    Yes, I agree. I dropped the book images this past week. There are several advantages about moving over to WordPress.org from WordPress.com, one of them is the capability of integrating JavaScript into the page… and, if I really want to get crazy, a little Flash from time to time. There are several things that I want to slip into the blog (LibraryThing being one of them), but cannot in the present site. As for background and layout, I’m contemplating the creation of my own based on several different designs that I like.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2009

      Now that is something I look forward to seeing.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2009

    By the way, you should be able to use LibraryThing on your site. Just copy and paste the code into a “Text” widget. That should do it unless our sites are very different.

  • Robert Moore Feb 22, 2009

    I’ll try it out. I have had mixed results integrating these types of things in WP.com. Some work and some don’t.

    Incidentally, on your blog image (currently the Lincoln & cabinet image), do you have it on a schedule or do you manually adjust it from time to time? I’ve noticed that it changes.

    I’ve seen in some designs where folks make this image random or can make it change according to seasons or time of day.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2009

      For now it is just static, but you can load as many images as you like and it will display them randomly. You can also place videos and do a whole host of other things with it.

  • Jenny Feb 22, 2009

    I think it looks very clean & it is easy to read which are the two biggest things. What you may want to do every three to six months is “nuke the sidebar” — pull it apart and re-do it. That seems to help me when mine starts to get cluttered. I always start out with a nice fresh template and then inevitably I stick this in and then that, and before long it is cluttered.

    My Civil War blog is a kind of hybrid between a traditional blog and a photo blog, and my users are often more interested in my archives than the current post, so getting everything organized into a usable format has been my big design challenge. I’m still working on how to do that best. My current theme is basically a mangled version of someone’s free photoblog theme (I liked how it looked, so I started pulling it apart to make it fit my site — I know just enough XHTML and CSS to be dangerous, so I am always tinkering with my code). I really like using drop down menus because they let you organize a lot of content in a small area. I’m consciously trying to keep my sidebar very short. Obviously, having a lot of photos means my site is going to be slower to load than a site that’s all just text … this is why I also try to also limit the number of posts on my front page.

    But beyond that, what I struggle with is just keeping organized on the back end, behind the scenes, what users never see. I’ve got hundreds of posts, literally over 7,000 photographs of the Gettysburg battlefield taken over four years time, and everything is just very unwieldy to keep straight. I’ve got posts that have published, posts pre-written and set to publish in the future, and posts yet to be written (placeholders basically). With the photographs, I found integrating Flickr into my project was the best — ended up spending two weeks labeling every picture individually, one by one, so fortunately I can find them quickly that way through searching my photostream when I need them. :) For organizing my posts, I decided to go with a tag system, but retrofitting my blog to it took several days, even using plugins.

    Users have no idea what goes on at the back-end. :)

    • Kevin Levin Feb 22, 2009

      Thanks for the quick behind-the-scenes tour of a site whose focus demands a different set of priorities in design and functionality. I agree that Flickr is an excellent tool to manage photographs. I

  • Victoria Bynum Feb 22, 2009

    Kevin, Yes, I did attend the SHA Civil War luncheon at which you spoke and it inspired me to get more directly involved with the Civil War public. I often visit blogs, but had not imagined creating one until a friend talked me into it.

    I have long found academia to be pretty isolating, especially since I teach at a state college with a relatively heavy teaching load (i.e. I don’t get out among other historians much). So I really love blogging, but I am still at the beginning stage, learning as I go along. I really appreciate your advice on how to make my site more accessable and effective, and hope to learn how to move sidebar features soon. As those of you who have walked me through such tasks know (Robert Moore, especially), I am way behind all of you in my technological skills. But hopefully I’ll get there.

    Vikki

  • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2009

    Vikki,

    It’s so nice to hear that my presentation had that kind of impact. Although a number of people approached me afterward I didn’t have the feeling that it would lead to the creation of a new blog.

    Feel free to ask questions. As I stated in the post the most important feature of a blog is the content and focus. That’s what brings people back to your site and helps build community. You are clearly well on your way to achieving those ends.

  • victoria bynum Feb 23, 2009

    Kevin, what stands out in my mind most about your SHA presentation last fall was when you called on academics to become more involved with Civil War blogs on the internet because, otherwise, the neo-Confederates will carry the day. I know from first hand experience that many academics think that battle has been won simply because it has been in the world of academic scholarship. Maybe because I teach in a huge state college south of the Mason-Dixon line, I have no such delusions. I really appreciate what you pioneers of progressive Civil War websites are doing to counter miss-information and ignorance.

  • Lee White Feb 26, 2009

    No, Redmon is too old and I doubt any of Wheeler’s men were wearing kepis in 1865. As a uniform nut those things stand out to me.

    Lee

  • John Walsh Feb 26, 2009

    Love the look, clean and simple yet elegant.

    John

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