Scott’s new book, Afterworlds, needed a very different look from his previous WWI-era steampunk trilogy. The change gave me the opportunity to rebuild the site from the ground up–including the SMF theme, something I’d never done before. It’s now responsive, which makes everyone happier. As with Justine’s theme, a lot of image functions that used to be done by hand are now automated.
Justine still loved the 2008 version of her site, but wanted to refresh and update it a little. We decided to keep the background, which had become a signature look for her, and give the main content more contrast. We rethought the navigation entirely and replaced some of the old-school blog features with a Twitter sidebar.
Showcasing both the US and Australian editions of Justine’s books is important to her, but it had always required extra work for both of us, creating two versions of the featured image for each book (one with the US cover in front, one with the Australian) and randomizing which one appeared. I took the opportunity to automate this process in the new theme. Now, Justine simply uploads each cover and checks a box for its country (using a custom taxonomy). The covers are still displayed stacked one atop the other, but this is now handled in CSS instead of Photoshop. The three books at the top of the site are the three most recent, but the plugin randomly chooses whether to display the US or Australian cover. This same custom plugin also builds the cover gallery for her press kit and displays foreign edition cover galleries on each book’s page.
Cassie had been using WordPress with free themes for some time when she sold her first novel. As its release date approached, she needed a “more grown-up” look. I took advantage of the striking cover art and worked a little magic so the text of Cassie’s blog posts wraps around the model’s silhouette — a common technique in print layouts, but one that’s seldom used on the web.
The design was refreshed in December 2013 with a new mobile layout.
When I was hired in 2007, the Writing Center had a complex site built in Mambo. It that hadn’t been updated in a while. Only the director felt comfortable adding anything, and we had forty-odd enthusiastic students who could contribute — if only they knew how. I updated the to the latest version of Joomla, but the community was splintering again, and some of the plugins we relied on hadn’t been updated. It also just didn’t do things that I expected of a CMS. Its blogging module didn’t support comments. I found another plugin that would add a commenting feature, but it didn’t integrate with the admin interface; you had to type a (non-memorable) code into the text in order to turn on commenting. The search feature was abysmal. The podcast feeds were actually created in a desktop application and uploaded to the server outside of Joomla, which didn’t support enclosures or multiple feeds. Some of those features were added in later versions of Joomla, but at the time, the lack of solid leadership in the developer community didn’t make me optimistic about Joomla’s future.
The Drupal Detour
When we started thinking about replacing Joomla, an event calendar was a major requirement. I chose Drupal, having used it on and off since 2004. I knew it was a beast, but I also knew the calendar module was great. Alas, everything else was a mess. The URL rewrite module didn’t work as advertised. The plugins required to put together a rich text editor with image upload features — something comparable to the one that’s built into WordPress — would not play well together, and I couldn’t create an editing interface that our users would actually use. If your content contributors won’t use the CMS, it’s game over. Fortunately, in the seventeen months (!) since I’d started messing around with Drupal, the central campus web team rolled out a calendar system for everyone. Once the calendar requirement was removed from my list, I was able to ditch Drupal.
The WordPress Migration
I built the new site in WordPress, migrated content from both the Joomla and Drupal sites, redirected the old URLs to the new, modified a magazine theme, and wrote a custom widget to fill in the one feature requirement I couldn’t meet with WordPress or an existing plugin.
The new site was up and running in two weeks. I trained the staff in a single 90-minute session. It was glorious.
I later migrated our Gallery2 photo albums into WordPress, and released the import script I’d written as a plugin.
Structuring Content and Moving to Custom Post Types
The Writing Center site had a lot going on: a faculty blog, two podcasts, a semiannual newsletter, a news blog, video archives from an irregular workshop series, a collection of handouts for students organized into four general categories, and resources for faculty that included a bunch of informational pages and a detailed list of courses.
For the most part, fitting all this into WordPress’s posts vs. pages model wasn’t difficult. All the date-based stuff went into posts, and I used categories to make them look like separate blogs, with distinct category templates and category-specific RSS feeds. The faculty resources were more complicated. Most of them fit into a neat hierarchy, which made pages a logical choice, but that left me with the course catalog.
When I abandoned Drupal, I knew I was giving up the Content Creation Kit that would have allowed me to separate the list of courses from the other web content. I imported those into WordPress as posts, then used category templates to display them separately from the other blogs. I was just biding my time until WordPress 3.0 came out, with its new custom post type support.
I wrote the basic course content type plugin in an afternoon, then refined it over time with added features: extra custom fields, sortable columns, nicer icons in the admin menu. (This code also became the custom post type example in my book, and you can download the updated code as a zip file.) To move things over from the old posts, I wrote a migration script that I later released as the Convert Post Types plugin. There was no easy way to convert taxonomy types, so I cheated: I edited their database entries manually. (There were only ten of them.)
Launching the Network
While I was working on the Writing Center site, I was also supporting a number of other offices related to Undergraduate Studies. I had most of them running WordPress, but they were all on separate installations. Merging them was a tricky process because some of them shared users, so a straight migration wasn’t possible. I’ve written about the experience.
Inventory: the Content Audit Plugin
When I moved the sites into WordPress, we used the classic content inventory spreadsheet to keep track of things. That was useful, since there were a lot of title and URL changes as we updated pages. However, for the second content inventory I did, after everything was in WordPress, a spreadsheet felt redundant. The post/page list screens contain most of the information on the spreadsheet: an ID number, the title, the URL, the publication date. But some of that information isn’t visible, and we still needed the ROT column and a place to write notes and assign updates to people.
Instead of copying everything into a spreadsheet, I wrote the Content Audit plugin. It uses WordPress’s custom taxonomies and fields to fill in the missing pieces. With the plugin, you can simply check a box to mark something as Outdated or Redundant — and since those labels work just like the built-in categories, they’re very flexible. You can replace them with labels that work for you. There’s a textbox for entering notes, and you can assign a content owner — other than the original author — by choosing a user from a dropdown.
We did our inventory right from the WordPress admin screens, and there was no need to refer to an external spreadsheet that was never up to date anyway.
In 2011, I built a theme framework that would unify the Undergraduate Studies sites, including the Writing Center. I created a theme with two responsive layout options and six color schemes, all based on the University’s brand guidelines. These options would be available to any site on the Undergraduate Studies network. Then I created child themes for the individual sites that further customized the appearance. For Undergraduate Studies, that meant displaying a monthly feature on the home page. For the Writing Center, that spot was devoted to a photo slideshow followed by the latest news story. The Writing Center also needed the specialized templates for categories and custom post types to display their wider range of content.
The Writing Center is using a child theme of this framework today. The rest of the network never launched with it, as the department’s leadership changed hands the week I finished it, and I left the university altogether a few months later (for unrelated reasons).
The authors of this collaborative novel wanted a small website, separate from their own, to showcase the new book. To get things up and running quickly and inexpensively, I wrote a WordPress theme based on _s and Bootstrap, with a color scheme based on the book’s cover. Since most of the content was already written for Justine’s site, this became the first real-world test of the Selective Importers plugin. (It worked great.)
The site also features an experiment in managing book reviews: a custom post type with fields for the reviewer’s name, publication, and URL; the review text; and a toggle for starred reviews. This makes it easy to display the reviews in a consistent style.
Cleopatra is the University Writing Center’s scheduling system. Students log in to make appointments to get help with their writing. Writing Center consultants see their upcoming appointments (and other assignments), keep notes on what was discussed in each session, and request time off. Managers set the consultants’ schedules and view reports on the consultations.
The system was developed in ASP.Net by the CIS IT Solutions & Support group. However, this group does not include any interface designers, so I worked with them to lay out each screen and craft the application’s HTML structure. Where they thought in functional specs and flow charts, I thought in sketches. I immediately realized that the receptionists’ daily appointment screen was the heart of the application, functioning as a dashboard for the day’s activities. I began drawing what I wanted it to look like, and we made decisions about the application’s logic based on the proposed interface. I liked the notion that “the interface is the functional spec.” The daily schedule page still looks very much like that very first sketch! Once we had the underlying HTML sorted out, I wrote the stylesheet that gives Cleopatra its clean look. We used the Classic icon set from IconDrawer for most of the interactive components, and I based the color scheme on the icons.
Cleopatra is not visible to the public, but CIS has generalized the software for use in other advising departments. You can take a look at the resulting Sundial system at sundial.tamu.edu.
In 2011, shortly before leaving, I spent a few weeks retrofitting a responsive design. Amazingly, I didn’t have to change much.
I’m still working with the Writing Center, now on a freelance basis, to develop the next iteration of Cleo.