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Archive for January, 2011

The Dilemma of Choosing the Perfect CMS

Do I Need a CMS?

Many probably wonder whether CMSs are actually beneficial. My experience with the most popular ones assures me that using one is a smart decision. Check out the flowchart below:

instantShift - The Dilemma of Choosing the Perfect CMS

Why Should I Use a CMS?

Simply put, a CMS makes creating and editing content simple and easy. Developers often forget that this is its main purpose. They cripple themselves (and their customers) by constantly searching for more functionality.

Content doesn’t mean just text. Sometimes your website will require a contact form or user-authentication system. Look for a CMS that provides the required functionality you need without sacrificing ease of use.

Take the First Steps

Finding a CMS can be daunting, but if you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for, you can quickly weed out the options that wouldn’t help your business achieve its goals. Get a clear idea of your needs by asking these questions:

  • How big is your organization?
  • What is your budget?
  • How many people will need access to the CMS?
  • How flexible is the CMS you’re researching? Is it adaptable, and can it be upgraded easily?
  • How accessible and helpful is the software provider’s customer support?

Keep these factors in mind, and tailor your decision to your website and ambitions; if you do that, you’re unlikely to go wrong.

Common Mistakes

instantShift - The Dilemma of Choosing the Perfect CMS

Assuming the Popular One Is Right for You

Many organizations try to avoid the risk of a vendor going bust by choosing a complex CMS from a major vendor. But a huge vendor or widely used product isn’t necessarily right for everyone.

Find out details about the size and financial viability of the vendor, as well as the functional requirements of the product itself. A high price tag does not automatically make one CMS better or more capable than another.

Some developers feel compelled to purchase a CMS “for life,” which can cause them to choose the product with the most features for the budget. Before you know it, they’ve purchased an enterprise-level system for tens of thousands of dollars when a free blogging tool would have done the job. They fell for the age-old—but flawed—principle of “bigger is better.”

The more money you spend, the greater the risk. What’s more, every added function inevitably affects the usability of the CMS for the authors. At the end of the day, if a CMS is difficult to use, then the product is unlikely to sell and the vendor is unlikely to prosper, which could lead to a failed project and failed website for you.

The most practical approach? Keep it simple and keep it small.

Choosing a Tech-Friendly CMS

Web developers need to remember that not everyone is as tech-maniac as they are. Your personal preferences and ability to operate the system don’t matter unless you’re making the website for yourself; the most important factor is whether everyone who needs to can use the system as intended. In the long run, picking a CMS that has a simple admin interface will be better for the organization—even if you have to customize it to meet the customer’s needs.

Going With the Simplest Choice

Don’t swing to the other extreme and choose an overly simplistic CMS just to avoid the behemoth. Make sure that extensions with the functionality you need are available for the CMS you choose. You might stumble upon many promising CMSs, but do not invest in one until you know that it has what you need. Unfortunately, some of the best CMSs out there are still being developed.

Not Understanding the Problem to Be Solved

All too often, organizations rush into purchasing new technology before fully understanding the problems they need to solve. Without knowing the practical requirements of the website, you have no meaningful basis on which to select a CMS. So, first understand the website, and then the CMS’ requirements will become clear.

Assuming There Isn’t Much Choice

The content-management market is complex. Over a thousand products are estimated to exist worldwide, and almost every country or region has in excess of a hundred products available locally. The challenge is to find and understand these products, despite the few effective channels for customer research and vendor marketing.

A few vendors—mostly the international players, which are focused on the high end of the market—have spent money to be visible. Companies are often blinded by the assumption that a limited number of “real” CMSs are on the market; they evaluate only the most visible options.

Without having done the necessary research to identify a broad set of products, companies often get a skewed perception of the CMS marketplace. Instead, they must learn the market and to seek out all possible solutions.

Tips for Choosing the Perfect CMS

How should you establish a list of requirements? Circumstances vary, but here are 10 particularly important things to consider.

1. The Website’s Purpose

What is the primary function of the website? Is it static, or is it a fully functioning e-commerce website? Does it contain many multimedia files?
Define your website’s purpose, and then find a CMS that does that particular thing well. If images and video are the main focus, then you need a CMS that has built-in media support or great plug-ins to enable that functionality.

2. The WYSIWYG Editor

The editor is a core feature worth special attention. The majority of CMSs have WYSIWYG editors (as in “what you see is what you get”). The editor is the interface through which content is added and updated. Traditionally, editors enable the content provider to apply basic formatting, such as font and color. The dangers of traditional WYSIWYG editors are two-fold; first, content providers could be given too much control over the design; secondly, in enabling this amount of control, the CMS might mix design with content.

Your list of requirements should include an editor that does not give content providers control over appearance. At the very least, look for a CMS that allows the editor to be replaced by an alternative of your choosing. The editor should be able to handle external assets, including images and downloadable files, which brings us to the next point…

3. Managing Assets

Images and files are poorly handled in some CMSs. Poorly designed, unusable systems frustrate users. Images, in particular, can cause problems. Your CMS should force content providers to add <alt> attributes to images. You might want one that also has basic image-editing tools, such as cropping, resizing and rotating, but finding one that does can be a challenge.

How does the CMS you’re considering deal with uploading and attaching PDFs, Word documents and other files? How are these files displayed? Can descriptions be attached to the files, and is the search engine capable of indexing them?

4. Searching

Search is an important aspect of any website. Here are a few things to look for when assessing search functionality:

  • Refresh function: how often does the search engine index the website? This is especially important if content changes regularly.
  • Comprehensivness: does it index all of the content on every page? What about files such as PDF, Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents?
  • Speed: some search engines take ages to return results, especially ones on large websites.
  • Criteria: are users able to refine search results?
  • Ranking: Can either the user or developer customize the ranking of search results?

5. Content Customization

CMSs should allow for flexibility in the way content is retrieved and presented. For example, can you retrieve news stories in reverse chronological order? Can you display events in a calendar? Is it possible to extract the most recent comments and display them on the home page? Flexibility makes a CMS stand out.

6. User Interface and Interaction

If you intend to gather feedback from users, the CMS must provide that functionality, either built in or through a third-party plug-in.

You must at least be able to post forms and collect responses. Does the CMS make this process easy? Can you specify to whom the results are emailed? Can the results be written to a database or outputted as an Excel document?

Finally, think about how to manage users. Do you need to be able to reset passwords, set permissions or export user information to other systems?

7. Accessibility and Restriction

As the number of content providers on your website increases, you’ll want more control over who can edit what, and that requires a CMS that supports access permissions.

Enterprise-level CMSs support workflows in which page updates have to go through a series of checkpoints before going live. Complex scenarios like this require the ability to roll pages back to previous versions.

8. Versioning

The ability to revert to an earlier version of a page allows you to recover quickly when something is posted by accident. The most common use of versioning is to simply revert to the last saved state.

It sounds like an indispensable feature, but in my experience it is rarely used except in complex workflows, so think twice about whether you need it. That said, while once an enterprise-level tool, versioning is becoming available in more and more CMSs.

9. Functionality

Avoid unnecessary “bells and whistles.” Some websites require a ton of advanced functionality and some don’t. It’s completely subjective. If you’re never going to have an online store, why consider a CMS outfitted for e-commerce? If you never plan to do anything more than post photos, why have a CMS that does a hundred things? Find a CMS that does the one thing you want well, and forget about the other features.

10. Support and Documentation

You’ll likely run into problems no matter which CMS you choose. Problems can be caused by add-ons, custom code and more. Choose a CMS with a support system; having somewhere to turn for advice and information is invaluable.

Support doesn’t necessarily imply making a phone call or submitting a ticket. Sometimes you can get quick, useful responses from a user community. Does the CMS you’re considering have support forums frequented by both users and the vendor? Are there off-site forums dedicated to that CMS?

Thorough documentation for the CMS is valuable and should provide information on everything, from basic use of the system to customizations and advanced functionality. It should also be accurate and easy to understand.

11. Intuitive Design

The basic purpose of a CMS is to make website maintenance easy, even for non-techies. Average users should be able to figure out, without many instructions, how to perform basic tasks like creating a page, editing content and changing the theme.

12. Standardized Back End

Make sure the CMS has a standardized format for every section of the back end. Consistent nomenclature is a perk; it helps users learn the system. If one section, for example, has a drop-down menu, then other sections should have the same type of menu for comparable options—not radio buttons or other selectors that could create confusion.

Some of the Best CMSs Available

WordPress

instantShift - The Dilemma of Choosing the Perfect CMS

WordPress is a state-of-the-art publishing platform that focuses on aesthetics, web standards and usability. WordPress is both free and priceless! It has morphed from a basic blogging platform into a full-functioning CMS.

WordPress’ back end is intuitive; various functions are laid out based on the sections of the website. The back end is standardized and well organized, and learning how to perform different functions (and where to do it) is for the most part straightforward. The WYSIWYG editor provides all the basic functions one might need (including inserting images, video and other media) and makes it easy to toggle back and forth between HTML and rich-text mode.

WordPress makes it possible to design pages as you see fit with custom themes and page templates. From galleries to text-heavy websites, WordPress can do it.

WordPress’s shining feature, though, is documentation. The WordPress Codex is massive and covers everything from basic use to creating your own plug-ins to working with advanced features. WordPress also has active forums where you can find fixes posted by other users for many of the problems you might encounter.

Official Link

Drupal

instantShift - The Dilemma of Choosing the Perfect CMS

Drupal allows an individual or a community of users to publish, manage and organize a wide variety of content on a website. It’s a powerful CMS that can be used for all kinds of websites: corporate, e-commerce, social networking. Drupal’s back end is incredibly simple, with logically organized links to create and edit content and manage accounts.

One of Drupal’s nicest features is the “Book Page” content type. These pages can be grouped into collections, or books, that are automatically linked together, which can be a huge help. Drupal doesn’t have a WYSIWYG editor in the core installation, but there is a module to add the functionality.

The plug-ins available do just about anything you could imagine. The code output by Drupal is a bit more complex than that of some other CMSs, but still relatively easy to decipher.

Drupal has a huge user community, with forums on the official website and elsewhere. Extensive documentation is also available for end users and developers.

Official Link

SilverStripe

instantShift - The Dilemma of Choosing the Perfect CMS

SilverStripe is a full-featured CMS that’s capable of just about everything. It’s built in PHP on the Sapphire framework, which makes it very customizable. One of its most interesting features is that designers can customize the back end for each of their clients. It also includes a WYSIWYG editor.

SilverStripe provides great support, including documentation for developers and end users, forums and an IRC channel.

Official Link

Joomla

instantShift - The Dilemma of Choosing the Perfect CMS

Joomla is the most popular open-source CMS currently available that runs on PHP and MySQL. The back end is straightforward, and its WYSIWYG editor has a ton of formatting options—even emoticons.

Joomla is powerful, so it’s probably not suitable for simple websites because its excessive functionality would go to waste. It includes a number of features to make pages load quickly, including caching and GZIP page compression, and numerous plug-ins are available.

Official Link

Contao or TYPOlight

instantShift - The Dilemma of Choosing the Perfect CMS

TYPOlight uses PHP5 and AJAX and is suitable for static pages, blogs, newsletters, calendars and more. The back end is intuitive and highly functional, and shortcuts are available for almost everything, from creating forms to adding Flash content.

It has a complete WYSIWYG editor and other tools to make publishing simple, but it might overwhelm those who aren’t tech-savvy; it’s not complicated, but there are a lot of options and possible customizations.

TYPOlight has some nice developer tools, including a built-in CSS generator and a form generator. Plenty of documentation is on the website for developers and end users: screencasts, forums and a wiki for support. And if you (or your clients) need advanced help, paid support is available from TYPOlight partners.

Official Link

Other Solutions

  • Cushy CMS is truly simple. It’s free and allows for unlimited users, changes, pages and websites.
  • Frog CMS simplifies content management with its elegant user interface, flexible templates, simple user management, permissions system and tools for file management.
  • MODx is an open-source PHP application framework that enables you to build websites quickly and exactly how you want to (with zero restrictions).
  • dotCMS is a fully functional CMS that provides bleeding-edge features and the latest code to a thriving community of developers and users.
  • Textpattern is an open source content management system unlike any other; it allows you to easily create, edit and publish content and make it beautiful in a professional, standards-compliant manner.
  • ExpressionEngine is a feature-rich CMS that empowers individuals, organizations and companies around the world to easily manage their website.

A Quick Look into Black and White Typography

Black-and-white typography was the first featured in printed books. It’s been around since ancient times, and everybody has seen some example of it first hand at some point. Why, especially in a world where we can print letters in any colors imaginable, does black and white typography still captivate us so much?

Black and White Typography

The Ultimate Contrast

Black is the darkest color possible. White is the lightest. Combining them, whether it’s black text on a white background or white text on black, instantly creates the deepest contrast you can ever achieve. Contrast is a known eye catcher – it’s bold, dramatic and makes edges look crisp and sharp. No colors can exhibit the high-contrast sharp look as well as black and white.
The benefits of black-and-white typography include:

  • • High contrast
  • • Sharp edges
  • • Versatility
  • • Dramatic look

Black and White Typography
Image Source: Craig Ward

Black and White Typography
Image Source: A Design Mafia

Two Colors and Everything in Between

Unlike any given combination of two colors, black and white can literally be used to convey any subject. Graphic design-wise, the term “black and white” includes all possible combinations of the two colors, which means that you also have access to the entire spectrum of grays as well.

This presents a wide variety of options you can use for design, including:

  • • Smooth shading for three-dimensional type
  • • Gradients
  • • Complex textures, such as bumps or spikes
  • • Photo-realistic materials (ice, feathers, glass, smoke and so on) from which to make type
  • • Detailed patterns
  • • Interesting light and shadows as if the type were a real object

Black and White Typography
Image Source: Mrtyn on Deviantart

Black and White Typography
Image Source: Tpography Tree by Fikriye

American Graphic Design 66
Image Source: American Graphic Design 66 by Alki1

Two Tone Design

Despite the options that gray shading offers, sticking to pure black and white is often the route that designers take. This preserves that striking light-dark contrast while at the same time creating a certain look. Depending on the type and the presentation, a designer can use black and white to convey the sketchiness of hand drawn art, the shininess and wrinkly texture of leather and more.
A limited palette shouldn’t limit your creativity – here are just some of the possibilities for pure black and white typography:

  • • Black text with thin white stroke on a white background
  • • White text on a white background with thick black negative space to show letter forms
  • • White text with black stroke on white background
  • • Black text with white lines to show contour on white background

Black and White Typography
Image Source: Inject Knowledge Question Mark by CHIN2OFF

Swiss Student Graphic Design
Image Source: Swiss Student Graphic Design by Alki1

Swiss Student Graphic Design
Image Source: Swiss Student Graphic Design by Alki1

Affordable Printing

Another advantage of black and white typography is that it costs less to print. While other two-color designs take two different kinds of ink, black and white requires only one – black – if you print it on white paper. Unless you’re careful, shades of gray sometimes give the impression that your printed media is in black and white to save on printing costs. Pure black and white can actually look more expensive due to its elegance, even though it isn’t.

Three Reasons for Feeding Yourself Great Designs

If you want to be a better designer, then you should feed yourself great designs. Forehead-slapping common sense, right? Yet some designers downplay the importance of consuming and getting inspired by great designs. Yet there are 3 reasons why you need to feed yourself great designs.

Designers that think influence and constantly exposing yourself to great designs isn’t that important tend to believe that brilliant work comes from within and that it can be turned on at will. But as creative block—which gets the best of us—shows, creativity is a finicky beast. And a lot of outside factors subconsciously dictate how and when your best designs are created. Therefore, it’s important that you feed yourself great designs. It’s what can help inspire your best design work—whether for yourself or for your clients—as well as keep you going during the creative down periods.

Without further ado, here are 3 reasons why you need to feed yourself great designs:

 

1. Good Goes In, Good Comes Out

Think of your design work as a body: when good design inspiration comes in, good work comes out. It’s similar to your body where when good ingredients come in, a good body and day comes out. You’re more energized, better rested and alert, healthier, stronger, and so forth.

It’s no different with your design work. Creativity is a ridiculously fragile thing – when you feed it anything but the best inspiration, your output quickly plummets. You really can’t be messing with it. Think about it: after watching some mediocre show or browsing through fairly average blogs or listening to safe-and-nothing-special music, did you get really excited and have inspired ideas start running through your head? The answer is probably ‘no’, and with good reason – bad ingredients went in, so it’s only natural that mediocre work would come out if you attempted to design afterwards.

Keep your design creativity in tip-top shape. Healthy, strong, alert, energized. By feeding yourself great designs, you increase your chances of also creating great designs. Good goes in, good comes out.

2. Get an Energetic Jolt During Uninspired Moments

Creative block happens to the best of us. Minimize it by feeding yourself some great designs. You’ll then get an energetic jolt. Perfect for those uninspired moments when you can’t seem to come up with any cool designs – or if you have to force yourself really hard just to finish an existing design project.

If you live in a city with some great public art, architecture, or museums or shops nearby, you can take a break and simply walk around outside. You’ll come back to your computer re-energized. Or you can flip through some design magazines, or browse some design showcase websites. Or do whatever that’ll expose you to some great, inspiring designs. But get away from your design work in order to feed yourself these designs. Even if just for a bit.

The energetic jolt you’ll get can help inspire you, and you can come back to your design work filled with creative energy and ideas.

3. Keep Yourself Going Longer Creatively

Creativity is like a sprint runner – inspiration usually happens in spurts for most. But by constantly feeding yourself great designs, you can help make your creativity more like a marathon runner so that you can keep yourself going longer creatively.

Now, that doesn’t mean being like a robot that never stops creating or being inspired. That’s simply not possible – plus, not many would really want that, anyway. No, keeping yourself going longer creatively just means that you can minimize the uninspired down times and extend your creative designing times. In other words, keep yourself going in the zone longer – when you’re inspired and your ideas and work is flowing.

Similar to #2, you’re not only shortening the uninspired moments but by extension helping yourself be inspired more often. The higher frequency of inspiration can help you keep designing in the zone for longer periods of time. You’ll have so many ideas, or you’ll be energized by some many great designs you just saw earlier.

Feed Yourself Great Designs

Again, you might be thinking this is forehead-slapping common sense. Of course you should feed yourself great designs rather than mediocre ones, and by doing so more frequently you’ll be inspired and in the creative zone more often, right? Yet it’s easy to forget the most simple of things and succumb to wasting hours on YouTube or playing games when you’re uninspired and feel like procrastinating on your latest design project. When all it could’ve taken to get you back on track is a little bit of time with a great design magazine, or a brief walk around town, or anything where you expose yourself to great designs.

Rinse and repeat, and you’ll help yourself be a better designer and create inspired designs more frequently.

Hopefully you now see how important feeding yourself great designs is. It’s not just for pleasure, or something to do to pass the time, or influence to take lightly – it’s what can help keep your creative engine well-oiled and fueled so you can run better and longer with your design work.

To recap, here are the 3 reasons why you need to feed yourself great designs:

  1. Good goes in, good comes out
  2. Get an energetic jolt during uninspired moments
  3. Keep yourself going longer creatively

Now get out there and start feeding yourself all sorts of great designs.

How have you been feeding yourself great designs? What are some of your favorite sources of inspiration, especially outside of web and visual design?

Tips for Compromising between Designers and Developers

In the real world designers and developers are constantly battling it out over projects. Between two lighthearted developers are the crew who simply make website work while designers add flair and vibrant edges. The two perform very specific yet important jobs which harmoniously combine to create amazing web pages.

Often times, however, bickering can ensue leading to arguing and lost time. All client work from small-scale operations to large design firms is very important and must be treated as such. Below we’ll go over a few tips to help designers and developers reach a middle-ground.

 

Portrayal of Ideas

One of the biggest problems arises between a misunderstanding of goals and ideas. While designers are interested in sketching and displaying their interests visually, developers are often not so lucky.

It takes time to knock out bits of code and creating a program isn’t an easy task. Communication between the two teams will likely clear up many of these issues. Before even starting on a mockup comp have everybody sit down and go over their objectives for the project. In this way everything is put on the table so everybody is moving forward at the same pace.

Developers may also consider practicing some type of visual communication for programs. Flow charts and graphical diagrams are often the best way to represent what’s going on. It may be worthwhile to practice building programs out of conversation, too.

This isn’t exactly common practice but it does help to strengthen your knowledge as a programmer. Begin by talking out all of the steps needed to build the website you’re looking at, piece by piece. Even write these things down in a list if it helps. These individual pieces will come together in the end to create 1 final web application which can then be passed off to launch.

Carefully Plan Deadlines

Nobody enjoys deadlines but they are a must in business. Especially when working with high-class firms and clientele from all around the world design work must be placed on a schedule.

This is unfortunate for designers since rushed work is almost never good. Time management is a crucial skill to have mastered and apply into every day life. Once you know how much time is available it’s much easier to start right away and plan an easygoing work routine.

The alternative is crunching numbers and pushing your limits the last few nights of a project. This technique can work with developers, although not encouraged, because writing code is mostly logical and doesn’t require high reigns of creativity. Design work can only go for so long before quality begins to seriously degrade.

Group Morale!

Provide enthusiasm and cheer to all of your co-workers. Even though designers and developers may not see eye-to-eye all the time we can all come together and acknowledge the work we do is important.

If everybody is working together to keep others motivated there is no falling behind in the group. All tasks can be finished on time and well before due-date. In this way there’s extra room in the schedule for possible changes, updates, revisions, or anything else.

If it’s possible try building a work plan with your fellow group. Everybody is in on the work together so why not grind out the process together, too? Generally the designer(s) will create a mockup and pass this onto the developers.

From here the coding process begins and each web page is carefully crafted. If there’s any backend work or CMS implementation this would also be addressed post-template design. After the initial layout the designers’ work load shifts to smaller details. These can include page icons or banner graphics.

Ask Questions

Confusion is common amongst a large group, so there’s bound to be questions from some people. Don’t hold back anything you’re unsure of as it’ll ultimately slow down the process.

It’s important to feel comfortable in the working environment and speak openly when you feel the need. Clarifying a small detail up front will get you a direct answer and keep the project train moving. This is much more the case between developers who are working on similar features (frontend/backend Ajax effects).

Not only should fellow team mates be asking questions, but project leaders are imposed to run questions by the clients. If the team is indecisive about certain aspects to the project it would be simpler to contact the consumers directly to figure out what they want. If there is ever a lack of information don’t hold anything back – ask questions when necessary and keep your head moving forward!

Be Respectful of Workspace Time

This is often a no-brainer but doesn’t hurt to be repeated. Each designer and web developer is important to a project and needs to be given time to work. If everybody is hounding on each other and driving the team mad then nobody is productive.

Respect is the name of the game and will get design firms much further in business. Even on a small scale level it’s enormously important to have respect for your partners. Designers and developers each perform a completely separate yet key role in website development.

Make sure all teammates are communicating their ideas openly and honestly. At all times a project work floor should feel fast-paced but relaxed and open. All digital creators can get stressed at times, it’s important to recognize this and release it. Whether a designer or developer just stick to your path and remember everybody is working as a team to reach the same end goal.