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. đŸ™‚ 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 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
  • 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.

14 thoughts on “Revamp”

  1. Hey Martha,

    No need to apologize for going into code without a Full Fledged Paper Design. My projects like this are about 60% sketched out on paper, and then another 70% is figured out as I experiment in code (and yes, they deliberately add up to more than 100).

    I am not sure what a “full CMS” really is, and others out there are going to chant “drupal, drupal, drupal”, but I have done at least 4 variants of this in the last 18 months, and have some pretty complex, non bloggy sites running on top of WP, the primary ones being:

    Pachyderm Services
    NMC Virtual Worlds

    I have a third project (still waiting for clearance to go public) that has NO posts- it is all pages.

    Both have taken a page for the front end, and the blog-like stuff is news that appears as sidebar links.

    Custom fields are the keys to the kingdom, and I use them in ever expanding ways. On the pachyderm site, each item in our showcase

    is a “post” but also a custom field which identifies an icon and a small graphic used as a preview for the project.

    On NMC Virtual Worlds, I use custom fields for the portfolio, which are WP pages, and each one has a custom field to define the name of an icon file, and a PHP include that formats a different custom sidebar for each project:

    On both sides I have templates with custom code to select a given number of random pages (or posts) to make the front dynamic.

    Another key to the kingdom is getting a hole of how to use multiple templates- different templates for different post categories, or custom templates for different pages. You dont need a plug-in to do this, just need to know how to name them.

    So if you use categories (or tags) for pulling out say your resource stories, from your news stories, all can be posts, but you can create a radically different display by having two different templates based on the category/tag.

    If you go deeper and write your own queries into the templates, you can make your posts display or be selected/group by almost any parameter.

    I’ve done a little on another site for generating author pages based on WP accounts; again, by tweaking the basic author templates (those often are not in standard templates, but they are built into the WP engine)– e.g.

    I also do custom navigation w/o plugins, just by coding them in my header- sometimes they are just fixed, sometimes based on pages. Page Link navigation plugin is handy

    allows to to exclude pages from the auto generated navigation.

    Other plugins that have helped are:

    * Role Manager- fine tune permissions or create new roles Manager
    * Search everything – expands search beyond just posts to include pages and more
    * Secure and Accessible Contact form- offers a good amount of customization
    * FAQ-Tastic- a little clumsy, but allows you to generate FAQ structures
    * Get Click Web Analytics- great data, OMG I love Clicky. Free.

    Looking forward to what you concoct!

  2. OMG, Martha, we so need to talk. My summer project was working with a graduate student researcher on a revamp of the TRC website, using WordPress as a CMS. I can definitely share some stories from the trenches. We’re hosting it on our own server, which has been no end of trouble, particularly with regard to forms plugins, which are very important to us. Once we have it more stable, though, I’m really looking forward to the simplicity of updating the site. We used a tweaked version of the Revolution Pro Business theme, but when I just went looking for it, it looks as if it’s been replaced with some jazzier themes, which I definitely recommend checking out.

    I’m not thrilled with the way the site looks–it’s a bit bland for me–but it’s a VAST improvement over our old hard-to-update HTML pages. And since we don’t have any designers on staff, it’s what we’ll stick with for a while.

  3. @Leslie M-B Awesome. Thanks for the link. I’ll definitely check out the TRC site to see what kind of magic you all worked. If you’ve got any plugin advice, please feel free to share.

    When this is all done (assuming I’m successful!), I’m planning to include a sort of colophon that explains what plugins, themes, mods I used. I meant to mention that in the post. . .

    @Joe Yeah. I guess another thing that I should have mentioned in my post is that those are not actual pictures of my colleagues in DTLT. While Jerry IS very graceful, I have yet to see him in a tutu. Patrick, I have seen rock out, but I think he had both socks on — at least I left the party before any sock removal started.

    Now that I’ve “outed” the site, in fairness to them I should probably put real pictures up. Although, given some of the pictures I have in mind, they may prefer I stick with these. đŸ˜€

  4. Hey! I left a long comment last night! Am I trapped in spam filters? I said nice things and offered a lot of suggestions. Please dig me out of the spam hole….

    @Leslie M-B: Wow that is a great site, why apologize? It is very clean and would take some source code peeking to ID it as WordPress. Yes, getting forms to work inside a WP flow is tough as you wrestle with its own logic. I’ve done a bunch of these by rolling my own PHP forms, but you can use the WP first two lines of its index.php file to access the functions to call the header, sidebar, etc, style sheet; you insert your own code inside, and it does not execute through the WordPress engine.

  5. @Alan I have rescued you from Akismet purgatory. I have no idea how you ended up there, but consider yourself released.

    And thanks for the great response -=- there’s lots to mull over there, which I plan to do once I’ve gotten a good night’s sleep. I need the synapses firing.

  6. Martha,
    This is great, and not just for DTLT. Sue and I have been brainstorming (and Sue’s done more) for our new history/AMST department site along these lines. Subscriptions, multiple calendars, multiple lines of content: these are all key to what we see as the future of a truly connected academic department. Expect us to steal liberally from (…uh, I mean “collaborate with”) your work here.

  7. Wow, thanks for all the great advice Alan.

    If I’d been a bit more on the ball, I would have remembered that I had bookmarked this post of yours back in February: I remember thinking at the time that you were describing some techniques that might be the key to the empire in terms of what I was imagining for the DTLT site. Your post reminded me of it, so now I have another great resource to go back to.

    I’m really new to mucking around in templates (and did I mention I really don’t know a lick of php?), so the learning curve is a bit steep right now. But I have been amazed at how easy some of this is. I discovered the WP template hierarchy, and that helped a lot. I think I know what you mean about just getting the names of the templates right. Once I do that, the rest is kind of “baked in.”

    I also discovered template tags yesterday which was very cool — lots of dynamic content that can just be dropped into The Loop.

    In terms of custome fields, have you ever used them to “structure” your posts or pages? I’m imagining breaking content into fields like “description,” “screenshot,” “link,” and “contact,” for example. And then building custom templates to finesse the display around these fields. In my mind, this would be better than just big chunks of content. But, I’m not sure if what I’m imagining is overkill.

    I’ll definitely spend sometime really perusing the pachyderm and virtualworlds sites. I’ve looked at them before, of course, but never with quite this eye. . .

  8. Your timing is impeccable. I’m trying to ramp up a site for the Academy for Teaching and Learning here at Baylor and it’ll have to be developed in WordPress (for all sorts of reasons, including my own preference). Your web and writing chops are exactly what I need to inspire me and nudge me along. Looking forward to a great journey. Thanks!

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