Thinking Behind a Redesign

I recently implemented a new design for the homepage for our installation of WordPress MultiUserBlogs@Baruch.

I tried to accomplish a few things with this redesign.  Mostly, I wanted to update the look of the site… the previous version was a bit clunky, a bit 2003 1999, and I didn’t feel it was popping.  As I usually say when Mikhail critiques my design (which is often): I’m no great aesthete, and certainly not a graphic artist.  But I think this version is markedly better, cleaner, and more inviting.  2008.  2009, even.

The inviting part is really the key, because we’d like to make this page not just a portal to the wide range of blogging being done throughout the Baruch College community, but as a sort of digital commons where ideas and resources and teaching and learning can be shared within the community and beyond.  So I’ve tried to structure the new site in a way that makes it easy to share a lot of different kinds of information, and for visitors to peer in and get a sense of how folks are using this technology at Baruch.

The site includes:

A Home Page with featured blogs and links to recently updated and particularly active blogs on the system  At the bottom of the homepage, RSS feeds pull in posts from the CUNY News Wire, from the Baruch College Teaching Blog, from Cacophony, and from the Ticker.  I’m working on a links list that will be customized for particular pages within the site, and will be using this as a space to tinker, to play with, and to show off the functionality that the WordPress community is constantly building.  All of this is living, and will evolve.

An “About” page with a mission statement about this project :

Blogs@Baruch was built on the following core beliefs:

  • College students should write regularly in all disciplines and in a variety of formats and genres
  • Faculty should have available support for their efforts to create avenues for student communication
  • Open-source technology has an important role to play in the future of higher education, and colleges will gain much from experimenting with a wide-range of open-source technology solutions
  • Community users of centrally-administered software should share both the burden and excitement of innovating with technology.  While a strong support network is necessary, a do it yourself ethos should be prominent
  • WordPress Multiuser is the most powerful and flexible blogging system available, and can be effectively customized to fulfill a wide range of the communicative needs of the college community

A “Projects” page where visitors can take a look at current and past blogs and sites supported by the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute.  About three dozen blogs are linked, though some are password protected. Student blogs– we’ve got about 140 going right now– are not linked from this page.

A Blog where we’ll draw attention to specific things happening throughout the system and make announcement that might be of interest to our users.  This space will, over time, we hope, merge with what’s under the “Support” area, where I’m going to be adding to and refining what I hope are helpful materials– FAQs, a manual for WordPress customized for users of this system, suggestions for using weblogs in college teaching, instructional screencasts, and handouts for faculty to use and adapt.  The manual is in need of an overhaul, and this section will be tightened considerably in the coming weeks.

A “Contact” page for visitors to easily contact us.  Features a reCaptcha, for those curious.

Ultimately, we hope users and visitors will find this helpful, and will share in and contribute to the information it provides.  Scott Leslie recently wrote a powerhouse blog post on the ethics of and obstacles to sharing in higher education.  Leslie argues that institution-driven, overly-organized approaches to sharing tend to halt and stutter, while organic, individualized networks are more likely to thrive.  He posits lots of ideas about why and how this is, and concludes ultimately that planning to share gets in the way of actually doing it.  I take and sympathize with his point.

At the same time, I think the technology that eases sharing is still relatively underused and also undertheorized at Baruch and throughout CUNY.  One of our goals is to model just what a distributed learning environment is.  We’ll be using this new space to push, to compile, and to provide paths to useful information for our wildly diverse range of users.  It will ultimately be up to the users of the system to find value, and maybe to contribute some of their own.

The beauty is that they can do that just by getting a blog and sharing their work with the world.  If there’s value, and it’s put out there, it will be found.

In the interest of practicing what I preach– and since I totally relied on the fruits of the Google as I designed the new home for Blogs@Baruch– click beneath the fold for some techie detail on the redesign.  If the words “CSS,” “widgets,” “plugin,” “WordPress theme,” “hackalicious,” and “pwnd” mean nothing to you, no need to read on….

  • This new site is based on the Thematic WordPress Theme Framework, which offers 13 different widgetized areas, and the ability to develop child themes using CSS that will allow you to maintain your customized style through theme upgrades.  I should have probably created a child style, but I didn’t figure out how to do so until I was already deep into hacking away at the some of the php and css files.  This might come back to bite me later on, but I’m rather sanguine at this point that I can dig myself out of holes I’ve dug myself into.
  • Customization, made possible by a secured version of the Userthemes Management plugin: in the Thematic file structure, I’ve hacked the following files:
    • Sidebar.php: added search and login code
    • Header.php: added click to get home, hacked out the branding code, and tweaked the menu
    • Footer.php: added “Baruch is CUNY” logo, and moved site info down a div tag
    • Library/extensions/hooks-filters.php: added code to make “home” button appear in menu
    • Library/styles/default.css, I hacked to bits; I also an images folder to hold the footer and header images.. the header image is from the Baruch College Visual Standards library of images
    • I made a couple of changes to Library/layouts/2-c-r-fixed.css, which controls spacing of the different areas of the blog
    • I created two Page templates for displaying mediawiki pulls and screencasts without interference from sidebars
  • Active plugins:
    • Dagon Design Mailer for the contact page, with reCaptcha active
    • Flickr Badge Widget, to show those Baruch photos on the front
    • Widget Logic, to control what widgets appear on what pages
    • Wiki Inc, to link to the wiki where our manual lives
      • I had some problem with the Wiki Inc plugin, so much of the support section is actually written directly into WordPress, save the FAQs and the screencasts.  For some reason, I can’t get images to pull.  Brian Lamb and Scott McMillan from the University of British Columbia, who work in the group that produced the plugin, generously gave me some of their time, but we couldn’t get it going.  I’ll return to that, because it’s a kick-ass function.

That’s all for my anatomy of a hack.  So easy, even a historian can do it.  If you have any ideas for additional enhancements, please share them.