Design: Themes and Blogazines

I read an interesting blog post on the Smashing Magazine site: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/the-death-of-the-blog-post/.

Imagine that– a blog post touting the end of blog posts.

Except the title in the text narrows it down by adding the qualifier “boring”. 

So really, Paddy Donnelly feels qualified to be the arbiter of “boring”, eh? Is it hubris? Or does he have a point?

Well, Paddy’s post generated 607 comments, and mine are lucky to get one or two. So maybe he’s got something… lets take a look.

Paddy Donnelly is really only decrying standardization of blog design, particularly in regard to blog “themes”. In the English language, when we speak of “themes”, we are talking about “content”.  But in blog jargon, a theme is more what you would call “layout” in magazine jargon.   A blog “theme” is a template or form that allows an easy rendering of the blog’s graphic layout.   A blog “theme” is a standard layout form that you can use “as is” or mess about with in order to style your blog post.

If you look at the bottom of this page, you’ll see that the theme I am using here is a WordPress theme called k2.

k2 is a fixed width theme

designed to display optimally on an 800 pixel width screen

with a customizable header

WordPress defines the dimensions of the thing at the top pf the page, and how the tabs like “about” will display.  Customizable means I have the option to chose my own image:  that’s my friendly neighborhood chipmunk in my very own tree up there in my lothlaurien’s lore header.

and one right hand sidebar

Paddy’s article looks at three very slick blogs that are done in a format I’d never heard of that he calls

“blogazine”

Apparently, Paddy feels that the themes offered by blog providers like http://wordpress.com/ and https://www.blogger.com/start make it too easy to create a blog, and worse that they make all blogs look like each other.

What Paddy’s calls a “blogazine” seems to be a substantial article in which each blog post will be completely redesigned.  Interesting idea.   I guess the idea is to impose magazine format on a blog–  calling it a “blogazine” seems to say we should be making our blogs magazinier. (Well, how else would you spell it?)

But lets not forget that magazines employ their own layout templates, so that their audience can tell what magazine they’re reading at a glance. That’s a form of branding.

Well, lets take a look at Paddy’s own example of blogazine: this very article.  At first blush, I was pleased to see that Paddy had himself made good use of my wide screen real estate in his own blog post. That always garners high marks for design in my book. But closer examination revealed that what I took to be a fluid layout or elastic layout is in fact a fixed layout.

To look at the fixed vs. fluid argument check out HTML Dog‘s article on the subject. I love HTMLdog because their online tutorials convinced me that I could build a website. And I have. So I admit bias bordering on veneration toward anything HTMLdog suggests. Personally, I am in favor of fluid layout, even knowing how much more difficult it is. And that’s what you’ll find on my website. But I haven’t chosen a fluid blog theme here… because it is much more difficult. I just don’t have the time to do that much extra work in my blog.

Paddy’s blog post displays nicely on my 1680 pixel wide screen, and it is lovely to look at this blog post. I particularly like fluid layout because it’s nice to see all of my screen real estate put to use.

BUT

Looking more closely, it is not so nice for a smaller screen width.

Paddy’s not bothered to make his wondrous beastie flexible at all. He has not elected to use either an elastic or flexible layout. I know this by employing the absolutely most basic test– shrinking my browser window to an 800 pixel width. At an 800 pixel width Paddy’s blog post layout breaks badly. Because it is not elastic OR flexible, it is like stuffing Cinderella’s wicked step-sister’s foot in Cinderella’s shoe. Something’s gotta give.

This tells me that Mr. Donnelly’s only satisfied audience can only be those with the same screen width as his, or wider. Because anyone looking at Paddy’s blog on an 800 pixel wide screen could conceivably be driven mad trying to read a post of this length. Because on an 800 pixel screen the reader is forced to scroll back and forth across the screen like a ping pong ball.

The biggest problem with a fixed width is that screen sizes are anything but standard. Originally 800 pixel width was standard.  That’s why many fixed screen layouts are designed to accommodate the 800 pixel width.

But today people are browsing the web on even smaller screens. Looking at the internet on tiny cel phone displays, or their Blackberry, or on TV sets though their video games, or computer screens which run the gamut from small to gigantic or massive HDTVs with varying aspect ratios.

Not only are we all using different devices, like everyone else who accesses the internet from whatever part of the world, your browser is set up the way you want (or the way the techie who set up your browser wants). Because of this, your clearly defined fonts, say, or text sizes, or background colours or whatever, is set to your chosen default. So when the web design imposes their idea it can create conflicts, and cause divergences.

So although Paddy Donnelly has put together a nice article to present an interesting idea, he has come up against the essential problem encountered with all web design: you can be wildly creative and break the mold every time, but if you do that you are going to sacrifice accessibility. If a 1600 pixel width screen is a requirement you are limiting your audience from the get go.

If you want everyone who comes to your page to actually be able to access your content, you will have to spend hours testing it out on every browser and screen size available– from the tiniest cel phone to the widest of the widescreen.

Which of course explains why shortcuts like themes are employed. For myself, I’m perfectly happy redesigning someone else’s template (or “theme”) to function the way I need it to function, until I’ve the time to learn how to make my own. But I really see no benefit to doing the design and then the endless hours of testing in order to make the layout unique every time. That would add a great many man hours to crafting every blog post. If that’s all you do, great. But for the most part, blogs are created for fun, on the side, as a hobby.

unique riff

This is my first post without pictures.   Am I doing this to make a statement?  Well, actually, no.  I’ve dispensed with images for this one post because I just don’t have the time to add them.  I can either post today, sans pictures, or I can wait until I have time to find/take pictures and do the necessary layout.  That’s the kind of decision most bloggers have to make every day.  Since it’s been a while between posts I’m opting for picture free today.  It’s that simple.

I despair of all the incredibly talented designers who create websites and blogs without any care for accessibility. It is not impossible to create blogs and websites that are accessible, but It is hard to do. First you need to master the tools and the theory. And then you have to do twice as much work and a lot of testing. That’s what I would expect a professional to do.

But then, I’m old fashioned, because I want people to actually read my blog.

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2 Responses to “Design: Themes and Blogazines”


  1. 1 türkh yazılım teknolojileri August 25, 2010 at 11:53 am

    The biggest problem with a fixed width is that screen sizes are anything but standard. Originally 800 pixel width was standard. That’s why many fixed screen layouts are designed to accommodate the 800 pixel width.

    • 2 lothlaurien August 28, 2010 at 12:28 am

      That’s true. I confess that’s precisely why I selected this fixed width WordPress theme. Aside from the fact that only a tiny fraction of WordPress themes (or layouts) are flexible, I know from my website how much effort is necessary to keep a flexible layout flowing.

      It is much easier to throw together a blog post on the fly when it’s fixed width, as I did with today’s busker picto-post which I had to throw together quickly if I wanted to be an benefit to the Carnival.


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