On Future Proofing

Our story begins a little more than a month ago.

A young woman posted on the WordPress support fora that she wanted to move her blog to WordPress, and she needed to know if it would be possible to bring her website’s design over as well. My curiosity was piqued, and seeing an opportunity to flex my php coding skills, I volunteered my services. Bringing her design over to WordPress proved fairly painless, and I felt the satisfaction of a job well done. 🙂

Then I discovered the files for my original website design from 2002 and 2003. Inspiration struck, and I decided I would make that bizarre design work with WordPress. Thus, like radio stations sometimes turn back the clock, I had a retro weekend, where we partied like it was 2002 all over again.

As long-time Allynologists know, I muck about with my website design the way most people change socks. (I’m not a sock fan; I wear them because I have to, not because I like to.) I’m not really certain why — the one thing I’m not is a visual designer.

Partly, I blame WordPress, with its ease of changing designs and styles. I didn’t change my website design with GreyMatter, but only because once you’d started with a given design, changing it was nigh impossible unless you wanted to rebuild the entire website.

Mostly, it’s probably my compulsive need for tinkering.

In any event, after the “Retro Weekend,” I wanted a different look for the website. Something that didn’t look quite so… bloggy. I had a new itch — a coding itch — and since I’d made two non-WordPress designs work with WordPress, perhaps I could get creative and find something that really… clicked.

In the past, I’d taken some free CSS templates and worked them into WordPress themes. Once you’ve figured out the trick, it’s easy to repeat, and so I went scouring through some of the free CSS template libraries on the web.

I found some interesting layouts. Some with crayons. Some with spaceships. Some with nebulae. But nothing really sang to me.

Eventually, and I couldn’t tell you at this juncture which CSS template library I was browsing when I chanced across this layout, I found SymiSun’s free templates.

I was drawn to SymiSun-01. It had balloons. The header looked appropriately dreamy. It looked slick and professional. I downloaded the zip file and took a look.

The design was more for an internet business than a personal website, and it was probably meant more for a true content management system than WordPress. But I saw no reason why it wouldn’t be appropriate for WordPress.

I worked on the files, off and on, for about a week. I made some minor changes to the CSS to alter the width of the right sidebar. But overall, there really wasn’t a lot of work involved. I used a version of Brian Gardner’s Vertigo theme for WordPress as a code model (because, code-wise, it’s probably the cleanest WordPress theme I’ve ever seen), and took the HTML code from the SymiSun file and replaced its dummy text with the WordPress template tags.

I uploaded the files last Sunday, activated the theme, and…

It almost worked.

I’d neglected to close two div tags, and once those were fixed, the website looked right.

Oh, there were still some issues. Where did I want to put menus, what sort of content did I want in the sidebars, how could I get the search box styled properly. (Stangely, that last one was the major issue.)

I wanted content in my sidebars, rather than just links and the like. Thus, I wrote a little “about me” blurb, and put thumbnails of my publications. (I’ve yet to write the matching content; right now there’s boilerplate “lorem ipsum” text.) Also, even though I made the WordPress theme “widget-ready,” the sidebars are hard-coded to produce their output, and widget-produced content would go beneath the current content.

Unlike some of my previous designs, I really like this one. It’s lightweight. It looks more complex than it actually is under the hood. It looks professional, that’s the word I’m wanting.

And because I like it, I’ve done something I’ve never done before. I’ve “future proofed” the theme.

One piece of advice that’s always given when upgrading WordPress is to turn off all active plugins, so as to not disrupt the upgrade process. The reason is that there could be a coding conflict between a plugin and the new WordPress code, which could cause a white screen of death (and yes, I’ve seen that happen in an upgrade).

The problem is that there are several plugins that I use that affect the template files. A person trying to load the website, if the plugins are turned off, would get php error messages and the page wouldn’t load. Thus, what I’ve done is to put conditional statements in the files, to test if the functions exist called for by the plugins — and if they don’t, to skip a bit of code. If the plugin is turned off, the website won’t crash.

I’m going to keep SymiSun around as my design, at least until Thanksgiving, when I’ll change over to something wintry, like Wonderland.

And to think. All because someone needed help moving over to WordPress. 🙂

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