Building on a CMS 1

6 December 2006

In mid-2003 I completely reworked Antietam on the Web, dropping unmanageable static HTML and using a new database to store the contents. To create and deliver that content I built a rudimentary Content Management System (CMS) in PHP. Today I’d download a ready-made CMS and customize it to suit rather than build my own. No need to reinvent that wheel.

In October I volunteered to build a new website with/for an organization engaged in a good cause related to the Civil War. Among other things, their site will be updated by non-web people, so I think an off-the-shelf CMS will be a good foundation for the project.

About a month into development, here’s how it’s going …

Wordpress logo WordPress

My first goal was to build a prototype to show the group’s leadership what their site might look like and how do-it-yourself maintenance using the CMS would work.

I’d been using WordPress (WP) for my blog for a while, and had a good idea how to use it. WordPress isn’t a full-blown CMS, but for a basic website it might as well be. So I began with WP.

I found a theme (visual design template set) I liked in Hemmingway White, and with about 6 hours’ work had populated some content, customized the appearance, and published a demo site. Easy.

I had few initial design or functional requirements, so, not surprisingly, on meeting the group for the first time I found the initial prototype was wrong in almost every way. But it got us going toward what they did want as we talked about what they didn’t like.

Armed with more details, suggestions, and preferences from that meeting, I built a new WP theme and added some new elements hoping to get the feel they were looking for. Between fiddling with design options and creating the CSS and some background graphics, that took the better part of two weekends. An investment, but nothing like it would have been coding a site from scratch without the WordPress framework.

We’re still in the comment phase today, but it looks like the new design is close to what’s needed.

While waiting for everyone to weigh-in, I’ve thought about how to provide the more complex functions they want on the site. These include taking money, publishing a newsletter, showing products, and giving members special on-site privileges. There are also hints of some data-backed operations like membership management and donation accounting in the wings.

With enough plug-ins and custom PHP coding a WordPress site can be made to do all these, but the resulting hodgepodge of components would begin to defeat the original simplicity of the WP CMS. We need a more robust framework to handle these tasks and still keep the site manageable for the non-tech leadership over the long haul.

Joomla logo Joomla

So I’ve been doing a little experimenting.

My web research and an experienced friend suggested that Joomla (forked from Mambo) might be a good choice. It’s a full-featured and robust CMS. It’s won competitions and has a large and helpful following. There are also ready-made themes to kick-start with, for the lazy like me.

Last week I downloaded and installed it, no sweat. It was as easy as advertised, but seemed “fat”. Nearly 2MB in files alone, before any content. I found it a bit cumbersome, too, with a decidedly non-intuitive interface, and a whole new jargon and structure to learn. There is immense power in Joomla, but that results in an overwhelming set of menu choices and settings. It is not for the faint of heart.

Even after playing for a couple of days, it still felt like I was working with oven mitts on.

However, I became comfortable enough getting around and it looked like the tools I needed were there, so I started looking for themes similar in structure to my prototype design. There were several promising ones. I looked more closely at each.

I noticed pervasive and apparently non-removable use of tables for page layout. It’s core to Joomla code. On the forums there’s talk of rooting it out after a couple of more releases (?!). There’s other sloppy use of presentation logic in HTML scattered about, too. Center tags, line returns for spacing, inline fonts.

Bad vibes I got.

I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to rework AotW to more semantic HTML and moving presentation to style sheets. I’m still not where I want to be, but I’ve learned to appreciate how clean web code can be, and I won’t go back.

So goodbye Joomla. With semantic markup and pure CSS layout on my shield, I seek the Grail.

Textpattern logoTextpattern

After some further web sleuthing last weekend I downloaded and installed Textpattern.

I get quite a different feel from it as compared with Joomla. It’s light and clean, and produces elegant HTML with simple page structures and no tables for layout. Fewer of the old-school web gaffes.

The admin pages are fairly simple and I think my non-tech users would be comfortable with them. You might be thinking that Textpattern is too lightweight to be a rich CMS, but I’m finding it’s very capable for all the simplicity. There’s potential here.

Over the next few days I’ll begin styling the Textpattern site to look like my WP prototype, and work on adding the new features. I’ll let you know how it holds up through that.

6 Responses to “Building on a CMS 1”

  1. Joomla! Honest evaluations and HTML tables at Amy Stephen says:

    [...] [...]

  2. Brian says:

    misspellings fixed (thanx Amy):
    advertized, enopugh, chioices, goodby …

    .. and Joomla is really Joomla!, but who could navigate a sentence with that in the middle?

  3. misschatter says:

    Thanks for the honest review, even if my suggestion wasn’t quite what you were looking for! One thing I do for non-techie users I build sites for is disable the login on the main pages, but give them a link to the login page to bookmark. Then on the backend I give them publisher rights so that the edit icon appears on pages and they can WYSIWYG them inside the Joomla website and never have to log into the back end. They also get a “submit content” link on their user menu for creating new articles. It seems to work so far (although, that table layout you mention does get in the way of the ‘save’, ‘cancel’ buttons).

    I’m very interested in your TextPattern review. You seem to have more time to play with all this stuff than I do!

  4. Brian says:

    Hi Cathy .. but now you’re unmasked as the anonymous expert!

    I don’t know about all the time I have. If I keep up my present pace on this interweb business instead of what I’m supposed to be doing at home, I’m going to be made a childless bachelor.

  5. Amy Stephen says:

    Brian -

    I had to find *something* to say about your article! lol… And, yes, Joomla! is spelled with an exclamation point which does, indeed, take some getting used to.

    We have had long discussions on how Joomla! is used in sentences constructed with grammatical correctness. In all cases, the exclamation point is included – in the case with the sentence already ending in an exclamation point, a second exclamation mark is omitted. (i.e., Joomla!, not Joomla!!).

    Of course, that rule is set aside in the case that you are exclaiming your true commitment. In such a case, it is correct to say “I love Joomla!!!!”

    Please let me know if you ever have any Joomla! questions, especially those like the one I have answered above where there is actually very little thinking involved.

    Thanks for your comments,
    Amy

  6. behind AotW » Blog Archive » Building on a CMS 2 says:

    [...] This time crunch has tightly focused the effort I told you about in a December post about an off-the-shelf content management system (CMS) as basis for a website. To recap: I’m working a pro bono project to help a worthy historical non-profit upgrade their online presence. Last we talked I had built a demo website on WordPress and was planning to migrate to the more sophisticated Textpattern platform. [...]

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