In mid-November, while clearing away some old papers on my desk, I found a sketch I’d made of a website design. I couldn’t tell you how old it was — two or three years, probably — but there wasn’t anything particularly surprising or new about it.
It was the same, basic idea I’ve pursued, sometimes with great gusto, sometimes with bare effort, for several years now — a magazine-style front end to make the site more professional and less bloggy. Something more like Slate and less like Gizmodo.
Going through directories I have of WordPress themes, including all of Sony’s official Spider-Man 3 WordPress themes (yes, there was such a thing), I’ve found a dozen magazine-style themes I’ve tried over the years. Some were pre-made, like Streamline, a Brian Gardner product. (Gardner was one of the pioneers of the “premium themes” market, first with Revolution and later with Genesis.) Some were cobbled together from pre-made HTML templates, like BB. And then there was an effort to built a magazine front-end for a theme released by NPR, Argo, that I thought was pretty successful; I managed to make a theme that wasn’t even supposed to be responsive work responsively on smartphones. Not well, mind you, but well enough.
I then went in a different direction for a while, coinciding in a lot of ways with a declining interest in blogging, for which there are many reasons. One, ironically, was my desire for a magazine-style theme. Magazine themes all tend to be heavy on images; you have a “post thumbnail” to catch the reader’s eye on the front page. But, when blogging, what you’re writing may not lend itself to imagery. It may not need a picture. There may not be a picture. A picture might be beside the point. But with a magazine theme, you start thinking: “Is this post image-worthy?” Then you start to think, “Well, maybe it’s not…,” and then you start picking apart the idea, and then you don’t write anything at all.
Over this time, my sense of blog aesthetics changed, too. I remember a time where I had to have a blog theme with three columns (or more!). I could never put enough stuff in my sidebars to make three columns make sense, let alone two, but the WordPress community was a different place a decade ago. Even then, it was still a wild, untamed place. Now, I’m satisfied with a single column, no sidebars at all. None of those bells and whistles in the sidebar were really that important.
So, this sketch.
I’m not sure which blog theme I had drawn it for, though, really, that doesn’t matter. I had taken a stab at it with the Twenty Seventeen theme, the last WordPress default theme, by doing it with shortcodes, but for some reason (difficulty? indifference?) I abandoned the project. I might have worked on it for at most an afternoon.
I thought about it, coming to it fresh, and I saw no reason why it wouldn’t work. The magazine theme I built for Argo was somewhat elaborate behind-the-scenes with custom templates out the wazoo, but with shortcodes it would be much quicker. (I would need four shortcodes, but once the first worked, modifying it for the other three purposes would be trivial.) I spent an evening coding, and I would try it on the weekend.
Well, it didn’t work.
First, there were the typos that prevented the PHP from running. Once I cleared those, there were more serious issues — memory errors and time out errors.
The truth is, I had some fairly basic mistakes in the code, and I ended up rewriting the function from scratch. It worked, exactly as it should have. The next morning, I worked on the other three shortcodes. A weekend’s worth of work, and I had what I wanted.
None of it’s live on the website yet — there’s one thing “under the hood” I’m debating, and I want to make sure the CSS produces the right results in mobile — and that’s likely to happen this weekend.
It balances, I think, the two competing issues — “these are the things I think you should read” and “these are the things on my blog” — in a fairly natural way.
The only question in my mind is, “If it was that easy, why didn’t I finish this two or three years ago?” And to that, I have no answer. Something shiny must have intervened.