Category Archives: Design

Webcomic Site Designs

I’ve been perusing the archives for a variety of webcomics in the last couple of weeks, and I’ve seen a wide range of site designs for these comics ranging from abysmal to superb. There are two things I’ve come across that annoy the bejeebers out of me:

  1. ‘About’ pages that don’t actually tell you anything _about_ either the comic or the artist. One of the things mentioned in _How to Write Webcomics_ is that a webcomic site should have an ‘About’ page that should tell you a little something about the artist behind the work and possibly even a little something about the comic (like its inspiration, evolution, etc.). In two or three separate instances, I’ve clicked on the ‘About’ page for a comic I enjoyed in order to find out a little more about the philosophy behind the comic and in order to learn a little something about the artist, only to find one or two sentences that contain no useful information other than an email address. There’s one I’m reading right now that’s a little bit bent and contains an off-kilter brand of humor that I find rather enjoyable. The thing about it, though, is that I think it would be even more enjoyable if the artist would set the whole comic into some sort of personal context. I can interpret the comics he writes from my own point of view, but I can almost certainly guarantee that it’s going to be different from the artist’s POV, and there are certain of his comics that simply go right over my head because I don’t understand his POV. A more complete and comprehensive ‘About’ page would go a long way to remedying this situation.
  2. Useful archive links in prominent locations on the page. One thing that I hate is reading a the current comic in a webcomic, enjoying it enough to want to peruse the archives from the first one through to the present one, only to find that a) there are no archive links, or b) I have to click into the archives in order to get to the first comic, or c) there is simply no way, even by going into the archives, to get to the first comic. Any good webcomic should four links placed prominently on the front page either directly above or below (or both) the current comic – first, previous, next, last. New readers, such as myself, find those eminently useful in catching up on what’s gone on in the past, and without those links, we are more likely to surf away and never come back. Even having to click into the archives first before being able to click through to the first comic is frustrating. The more clicks you require your readers to go through in order to dig into your comics increases the chances that your readers are going to get frustrated by the experience and leave without ever becoming fans.

I’d say that about half of the site designs I’ve seen for various webcomics are extremely well-done. About half of the remaining comics could use a little tweaking and smoothing out of trouble areas, and the remaining quarter would greatly benefit from a ground-up redesign to make them more reader-friendly. Webcomics should be fun and easy to navigate, and good design is the way to make that happen.

Blog Content Accessibility

I have something against blogs that make it difficult to read them remotely. I’m a big fan of RSS feeds. They’re the things that allow busy folks to keep track of the latest and greatest happenings on the Web with much greater ease. So there are a couple of things that kind of bug me:

* Blogs that don’t have RSS or that have them but put them in difficult-to-locate spots. There are _some_ blogs (like those found on MySpace, for instance) – not a lot of them – that simply don’t publish RSS feeds. I make it a habit to avoid these like the plague, no matter how quality the content is on these blogs. It’s just a bit too difficult and time-consuming to visit these on a regular basis to see if there are updates. There are others, though, that publish RSS feeds but place them in such a way as to make it extremely difficult to subscribe to them. Windows Live, for example, puts the feeds for their blogs in a place where browsers like Firefox can’t even auto-detect them. I guess that it shouldn’t be any real surprise that Microsoft makes you jump through unnecessary hoops in order to use their particular brand of blog service.

* People that use the <!--more--> tag on almost every entry. There are some people who propose that publishing the full content of your blog entries to your feed will reduce the amount of traffic to your blog. They suggest that the best way to get people to come to your blog is to give them a taste and then finish luring them in with the promise of more. I’m not one of those people. In my opinion, excerpting every single entry to your feed is only a little better than having no feed at all because it still forces readers to click through in order to finish reading. I usually avoid blogs that only put excerpts in their feeds (there is one “notable exception”:http://hawtymcbloggy.wordpress.com on my blogroll) for this very reason. I use the <!--more--> tag sparingly, usually just to hide spoiler information from those that don’t want to see it. Maybe using excerpts really does work well for most people. Personally, I prefer to post full content and write what I hope are quality entries that will encourage people to come to my site to comment.

Of course, these are just my personal opinions on these two items. As the saying goes, your own mileage on these may vary a bit on these, and I would be very interested in hearing about your experiences in these areas. That is, after all, what comments are all about.

BlueSands Numbers

Bluesands Stats

I’ve got to say that my site’s stats from yesterday alone make my numbers from the rest of the month look paltry by comparison – nearly 1000 hits yesterday, mostly directed at my BlueSands WordPress theme. The next closest day this month is around 140 hits. Quite the margin of difference. Of course, it helps that I also made sure to add BlueSands to the “Weblog Tools Collection”:http://weblogtoolscollection.com write-up for yesterday, which always sees a lot of traffic.

It’s also a little more than twice the number of hits my site received when I released the Navigation theme for bbPress, which isn’t all that surprising, considering that WordPress is still, at this moment, more popular than bbPress.

BlueSands

I’ve been working pretty steadily over the last several days to complete the theme that now adorns this blog. At this point, I’d say it’s about 90% complete. The 10% that remains involves a whole lot of tweaking and validating code before it’s ready for public release. I’m pretty excited about it. This is only my second WordPress theme, and it’s a far cry better than my first, if I do say so myself. I’ve been wanting to build a custom theme for awhile now, but I hadn’t really had the time until I started having all this back trouble – and even then it’s only been since two weeks after my surgery that I’ve even felt up spending this much time working on the code. As soon as I finish tweaking everything, I slap this sucker down on its own download page and post a formal release announcement.

I’m also planning to redo my bbPress theme to match, thus giving the two primary parts of my site a more cohesive look and feel. I suspect that one will also be a fair bit of work, though it will probably be much less work than creating my first bbPress theme, since I build this WordPress theme using the same colors with the end goal of creating the bbPress theme. Once I’m done with that, I’ll update the download page so that folks can have their option to download the WordPress theme, the bbPress theme, or both themes bundled together.

Also, with WordPress 2.3 coming out at some point later this year, I’ll update this theme to accommodate for tags being native and Ultimate Tag Warrior going the way of the dodo. That, however, should be a very easy tweak.

Learning PHP

I’m sandboxing PHP today (not to be confused with playing with the “Sandbox”:http://plaintxt.org/themes/sandbox theme from the fine folks over at “plaintxt.org”:http://plaintxt.org), working on learning the code so that I can start coding the stuff from scratch, instead of just being able to hack other people’s work. I’ve been wanting to do this for awhile now, and well, I have quite a bit of free time on my hands these days, so this seems like as good a time as any to learn a new skill. I’ve got the PHP tutorial up in a tab, and I’m working through it step by step.

I’ve got at least a couple of plugins I’d like to write for WordPress, things that I haven’t seen anyone else put together yet. Trouble is, I don’t know enough yet to write these plugins myself. I plan to change that. And heck, maybe I’ll even be able to add my own weight to some of the WordPress development somewhere down the road.

Anyway, time’s a-wasting. Back to the tutorial. So far, I’m finding PHP coding to be pretty straightforward. But then again, I learned C Programming several years back. This really isn’t all that much different. It’s fun!

Bit by the Coding Bug

I’m getting my inner geek on – again. I spent the majority of my day today trying to figure out how to crosspost from WordPress to MySpace. I’d found a “hack that looked like it had potential”:http://noumenon.roderickrussell.com/wordpress-to-myspace-auto-crossposting that I messed with for quite a while, but so far I’ve had no success in getting it to run, despite having following the directions to the letter and checked everything over fifthlicate (and then some). I’m still waiting for a reply back on my comment to see if the hack’s author has any idea what’s blocking my attempts.

Ultimately, I gave up on that and started trying to find a way to put a light-weight Twitter badge on to my MySpace profile. I don’t like any of the badges that Twitter produces, so I looked around for other options. But of course, MySpace being the notoriously unfriendly environment that it is, there are no good solutions that are both functional and attractive on the page. So, I’ve given up on that option for the time being, as well.

In the meantime, I plan to learn a little more about the ins-and-outs of PHP coding tomorrow. I’ve got the MyDashboard plugin installed on this blog, but it doesn’t display quite as much information in the dashboard from some of my other behind-the-scenes plugins as I’m used to. So, my intent is to learn out to create a few gadgets that will tap into these plugins and put this information closer to my fingertips. If all goes well, I may even plan to create gadgets for a few other things that I’ve always wanted on the dashboard and never been able to find plugins for.

On that note, I’ve got a few of the plugin pages from the WordPress codex up in my browser. I really would like to get more involved with the development end of WordPress, but it is my sketchy knowledge of PHP that limits how much I can do. Since I have at least a two or three more weeks of down-time while I heal up from surgery, I hope to make some use of that time to learn a little more about how to write plugins for WordPress. I’ve come up with ideas in the past for things I’d love my WordPress installation to be able to do, things that, thus far, no one else has created plugins for. So, I hope to learn and add a few things to the WordPress community myself.

I’ve got other things to work on, as well. I still have plans to create a customized WordPress theme. I’d started work on a minimal theme last week, but that’s been on hiatus due to surgery last week. But now that I’m beginning to feel better and gain some more mobility again, I hope to get back to this project, as well, and try to finish it up. The skeleton I’d managed to build last week will probably undergo an overhaul, though, as I’ve changed my mind about some things in my mind about where I want to go with it. Heck, if I get _really_ ambitious, I might even tailor a new bbPress theme to go with it.

Resetting HTML

I’ve recently discovered the wonderfully marked-up “Sandbox”:http://plaintxt.org/themes/sandbox theme for WordPress and, in so doing, discovered the inspiration to build another theme for myself. But I also discovered rather quickly that there were a few minor problems with things not spreading out to the furthest edges of the browser. So I sought help and found that I needed to reset the margins for the html and body tags. I was also directed to this fabulous CSS entry called “Reset Reloaded”:http://meyerweb.com/eric/thoughts/2007/05/01/reset-reloaded/, which provides global resets for just about everything in a basic web page. I applied these and discovered the beauty of a WordPress theme with absolutely no formatting whatsoever. It’s a wonderful thing.

From there I’ve begun restructuring every element to my satisfaction, building what I need and want. And with Sandbox, this is made all the easier because everything has an id or a class (or multiple classes). All I have to do is look at the page source and see what tags are generated by the built-in code and then build the stylesheet accordingly. I’m working on a single-column, minimalistic theme with very few (if any) frills or flourishes. At this point, I’m thinking that most of the traditional sidebar content will also be shifted to a custom-built page template, but that one I’m going to have to work on a bit and see what comes of it. It’s a work in progress, and I’ll likely finish it up sometime later this week, due to the fact that there will be a brief pause in all coding work while I read the final installment of Harry Potter tomorrow.

If you’re a web coder, do check out Eric Meyer’s “Reset Reloaded.” I think you’ll like what you see and how much it cleans things up for you from the outset.

Theming

One of the advantages of being flat on one’s back is I’ve had time to do a little WordPress theme design the last couple of days. I volunteered to host and build a new website for my parents’ church – the one they had before was, quite frankly, a ghastly design and layout and difficult to update and maintain. So, I moved their site to a WordPress installation on my server, and then set about modifying the “Sandbox”:http://www.plaintxt.org/themes/sandbox/ theme to my liking. I started out with something very “plain and basic”:http://www.sndbx.org/live-preview/ – no frills, just the basic elements in place – and ended up with something “a bit nicer looking”:http://ebcclarksonny.org.

I don’t know if I’ll release this theme publicly or not. I’d have to clean up a couple of the files a bit, since I added some custom coding to make a couple of the plugins work correctly. But it might be worth it.

See-Through MySpace

I’ve done it again, much to my chagrin. I’ve set up another “MySpace account”:http://myspace.com/stitzelj. I wouldn’t have done it, but frankly, right now it’s the only way for me to re-establish some semblance of contact with a few of my high school classmates. Oh, the things I do for my friends…

In the process, though, I’ve discovered yet _another_ terrible layout idea – opacity. Specifically, making just about everything on the page opaque just so that the background design can be seen. It’s obvious that those who employ this particular technique know nothing about web page design. Opacity _can_ be a good technique – when used in moderation. Making an entire page opaque, however, is a very bad idea because it makes everything super-difficult to read. And I’m not one of those ultra-patient folks who will labor through it just to find out what’s new.

Oy, MySpace is _still_ evil. But in this case, I have good reason to live with it – at least for the time being.

Sponsored Themes

In doing my daily write-ups for “WLTC”:http://weblogtoolscollection.com, I’ve become even more aware of just how many WordPress themes out there contain sponsored links – and believe me, there are a lot of them. I can also understand folks wanting to make a little money of their work. Theme design does take a lot of time and effort, which is why I haven’t done more than the one WordPress theme and the one bbPress theme of my own – I simply haven’t had the time. And it’s always cool to get paid for doing something you love.

But I myself will probably never use a sponsored theme. I shy away from them for the same reason why I have decided against using any form of adsense modules on my site. I think advertising of any form embedded on a site I’m reading is annoying and distracting, and I think that most people feel much the same way. The last thing I want my site to turn into is an advertisement for someone else. Granted, I’ve tossed banner ads up once or twice for something I truly believed was worthwhile, but always those ads came down within several days or a couple of weeks once the promotion period itself was passed. And I likely will never put up ads again – I just don’t like the added clutter. Sponsored links, while they usually take up hardly any space at all and since as simple text links in the footer, are still advertising that clutter things up too much.

The thing of it is, WordPress is free software and what’s more, it’s open source. It’s a community project of sorts, one that a lot of people contribute their work toward improving with themes, plugins, bug fixes, and much more. And a lot of this work is excellent, top-notch stuff. I’ve stumbled across a lot of sharp-looking themes and plenty of plugins that make life so much easier and better. So I guess I feel a little bit insulted when someone else comes along with a theme or plugin, one that has _probably_ already been seen in some form somewhere else (for free), and wants the rest of us to billboards their ads and sponsored links on our sites. Aside from the objections I’ve already raised, the thing I object to is that by allowing such things on my site, I’m implying my support for whatever businesses lie on the other end of those links, most of which I know nothing about and cannot, therefore, provide any sort of endorsement for.

With so many free, unsponsored themes out there, plus the ability to make my own, there’s no reason for me to ever use a sponsored theme. Besides, with the “WordPress Theme Generator”:http://www.yvoschaap.com/wpthemegen/ and “Canvas”:http://freshpursuits.com/canvas/, I don’t know why even the least HTML-savvy individual can’t create their own theme to their preferred specifications.