Revamp

One of my goals in my new role is to blog more regularly about the projects I’ll be working on. To that end, I’m going to use this post to kick off what will (hopefully) become a series about a project to revamp the DTLT Web site. I’ve wanted to tackle this initiative for several years, but I never seemed to be able to carve out the time.

Because I’ve been thinking about this site for so long, I have a pretty good idea of how I’d like it to shape up. That said, another reason why it’s taken so long to get around to doing it is that everytime the project came up around the table it seemed like we’d talk it to death — and I’ll be the first to admit to leading the charge on over-talking the issue.

This time around, I’m planning on just putting something out there that seems to make sense to me and that reflects (as much as possible) the conversations that we have had in DTLT over the years about a new Web presence for the division. I figure we’ll take our usual iterative approach and something good will emerge. Er, at least I hope so.

I have another reason for wanting to tackle this project — and wanting to blog it. For quite sometime, we’ve been speculating about the feasibility of using WordPress as an actual content  management system. We’re surely not the only folks doing this — there are quite a few more experienced WordPress users out there who have tackled this issue. And, undoubtedly, the work that my colleague Jim Groom does in WordPress pushes these boundaries (and inspires me) regularly.

It often seemed, however, that when push came to shove, there was always something that prevented WP from being the right CMS solution. Although I think I’ve always suspected that with the right mix of plugins and the right theme, the problems could be surmounted.

So the other thing I’m going to be trying to do in some detail is narrate the process of piecing together various WP plugins in order to strike the right CMS note, so to speak. I’ve already found a few gems that I think are answers to several of our Web site prayers.

In my research into how to piece this system together, I was surprised at how hard it was to find a comprehensive approach to WP as a CMS. There are lots of people talking CMSing WP on various forums or at various plugin sites. But I couldn’t find anyone who was tackling the problem “cradle to grave,” so to speak. (I fully realize I may have just missed some amazing resources out there — please let me know if I have!). I’m not sure why this is. In a conversation the other day, Jim speculated that a lot of the work in this area is being done for commercial purposes, and the developers may not want to share all the details of how they trick out WP. Well, I don’t care about that for my purposes — UMW’s paying me regardless. 🙂 So, I’m going to narrate away (including the missteps I take), and maybe I’ll create something useful for someone else down the road.

I tend to think about Web sites in terms of content types. I’m not sure that’s the best thing, but it’s how my brain works. Right now, I’ve got five main types of content I’d like to see us include:

  • (News) Posts: I’m calling them NEWS Posts just to dilineate them from the WP “posts.” Ultimately, I think I’ll be using WP Posts as the main content unit for all of these, and I want to not get muddled by the nomenclature. These are pretty self-explanatory: posts about news or announcement for our division.
  • Projects: These would be brief descriptions of past or ongoing projects with screenshots, links, and a list of contributors.
  • Opportunities: Any event, workshop, grant, contest, etc. that a faculty member of student might be interested in.
  • Resources: These would be short write-ups of tools, technologies, software, hardware that could be used by faculty to augment the learning environment.
  • People: To start, these would be write-ups of each of us in DTLT. Eventually, maybe we’d have write-ups for faculty collaborators

There are a few other features I’m intersted in:

  • Subscriptions: A main goal of this site is to provide faculty with more and better news from DTLT. We can send out all-faculty emails, but I kind of hate that approach. My gut feeling is a lot of faculty just delete these unread. I’d like to create a system that allows a faculty member to opt-in to receiving our news, and, hopefully, with some granularity about what kind of news he/she gets.
  • Events: I’d like a calendar of events. This is a bit tricky as there are other calendar sources that we contribute to at UMW. I’ll need to figure out if this can interoperate with them. I also need to figure out how Events and Opportunities are related.
  • A Non-Bloggy Theme: I’m really aiming to push WP out of it’s blog boundaries for this project. I know it’s possible to build a perfectly good site that isn’t really a blog by using a blog theme, but I want to do something different. I’m investigating tricking out one of the more magazine-style themes.
  • Cross-tagging and categories: To whatever extent possible, I’m hoping to use WP tags and categories to cross-link among all of the content typtes (that’s why it’s important to use posts and not pages as the content unit since pages don’t use categories)

I’ve probably put the cart before the horse here. Any decent Web developer would probably say I should start by outlining my goals for the site. Don’t worry, I’ve thought about those issues. But, truth be told, I’m a concrete thinker. I need to start futzing in order to solidify my own understanding of my goals. So I will expand on that, but a little later.

In the meantime, I have done some initial development and research. So if you want to play along from home:

  • I’m building the experimental site at http://www.marthaburtis.net/newdtlt. Be forewarned: this site is NOT ready for primetime. I fully expect to break it and blow it up regularly.
  • I’m going to post screenshots along the way in a Flickr collection. Link forthcoming.
  • I’m tagging stuff I find that might be useful at http://delicious.com/mburtis/dtltsite
  • Right now, the following plugins are looking very promising (particularly in concert with each other). If you know anything about them, feel free to share:
    • Flutter (formerly Fresh Post) allows you to create custom Write Panels that make use of WP custom fields (I’ve always thought custom fields must be part of the key to turning WP into a CMS
    • dTabs is a pretty slick plugin for creating custom tabbed navigation. It allows you to link a tab to a page, a post, a category, a URL, etc. The styling can be a bit tricky.
    • Idealian Category Enhancements allows you to designate a particular template to be used for a particular category, automatically.
    • AStickyPostOrderER lets you manually order posts within a category, bypassing the automatic reverse chronological ordering.

The theme I’m playing with right now is called WordPress Magazine. It’s a pretty clean, block-style, magazine theme. I’m not sure it’s the right one long-term, but it’ll do as I experiment.

So, I have no idea if this will be useful or even interesting to anyone else. But, that’s okay. In the end, I think this will be useful narration for me as I develop a better understanding of my project and my tools.