I’ve worked as a graphic designer since sometime around 1991, and I cut my graphic designer teeth making newspapers. And as archaic as it may sound, when I first started publishing those things, we didn’t even have the internet. My newspaper made an (albeit half-hearted) attempt to embrace the web, but it took me personally a long time to wrap my head around web design. It has its own rules. When you design something for print, regardless of what it is, you basically just move things around on the page until it starts to look good. If you want to try the logo at the bottom, you grab that logo with your little arrow pointer guy and just move it there.
Web design is different. It’s all code. It’s html tags and hexidecimal color values, and you would not BELIEVE how long it took me to fully grasp the concept of Cascading Style Sheets. By the early 2000s I realized that I could no longer function as a graphic designer without at least some rudimentary web skills. But by the time I was trying to teach myself to use GoLive, Adobe was already phasing it out in favor of Dreamweaver, so I got discouraged, and a couple of years later started trying to teach myself that. The blog I created back then in Dreamweaver is still up, by the way — it has six entries by me from 2007 about awful flash games. It’s kind of funny.
While I was basically plugging my ears and pretending that web sites didn’t need people to design them, though, something amazing happened. Web sites stopped needing people to design them. It’s called WordPress, my friends (and yes, I’m typing this post into a WordPress “add new post” window right at this very moment). Assuming you don’t mind having wordpress.com in your domain name, it doesn’t even cost anything — anybody with an internet connection and a dream can sign up for a free account, pick a theme and have that dream realized in minutes. You can also pay WordPress for stuff like custom URLs and advanced design options, or you can do what I did, which is to pay a separate company for an independent hosting plan, and install WordPress on it for free. (For the record, all our sites are hosted on a single account from Dreamhost — it’s like $8 a month or something, and I love them so much I want to have their babies).
Of course, somebody out there is designing all those WordPress templates, which completely transform the look of your website at the click of a button into any number of beautiful (and of course some hideous) designs. But it isn’t me. And more importantly, it isn’t the person is running the WordPress site. It also isn’t some high-priced graphic designer (screw those guys) charging clients for custom design work. It’s somebody making what they think is a really cool site design, and then either throwing it out there for free or charging a small fee, knowing that anybody could use that theme for anything. And the plug-ins! Any time some brilliant programmer has an idea of something new she’d like WordPress to do, she throws together a plug-in to add that functionality, which means than now everybody’s website can do that. It’s kind of the most awesome thing ever.
I like my websites to look amazing (that’s just me), so I found this company called Elegant Themes that makes stunning wordpress themes and sells them on a subscription basis. For $40 you’ll be able to download every theme in their catalog (at the end of a year you’ll either have to pay up again or just download them all and stockpile for future use), and access to pretty great web-based technical support as well. I think they’re somewhere in Scandinavia, so I have to wait for them to wake up sometime after I’ve gone to bed the next day, but they’re really good about getting back to me. Elegant Themes is responsible for the look of ftE, my author blog, a site we threw together when we got married, and any number of other (VERY SECRET) things I’ve currently got on the back burner. Heck, I came very close to launching a geek pop culture Q and A site just because I was browsing their themes and I saw this.
The other thing I want to note is that if your WordPress theme isn’t quite right for what you want it to do, you’ll still need to get under the hood and edit code to make everything perfect. That’s what most of my late-night emails to Elegant Themes tech support involve: not being able to figure out which line in which .php file controls the dimensions of the thumbnail in the gallery display. Wait a minute — .php files? Lines of code? Cascading FREAKING style sheets? Yes, WordPress has done what no amount of peer pressure or global media shift has ever been able to do, which is to start genuinely teaching me web design. And I’m having a blast. Just tweaking the code in a pre-packaged theme, I get the sense of wonder and possibility that I haven’t felt about print design for ages.
Maybe you need to be old, and to have published a newspaper back in the dark ages to feel quite like I do about the internet. But picture this in your mind: You stay up for maybe a good solid 2 days, laying out pages and printing proofs, taping those proofs to the wall and having other people mark them up. You input their changes, then print out finals pages and literally paste those to boards. Then you drive for 45 minutes out to your printer in Kent, and nod off during a movie at the Kent Cineplex while the press guys shoot negatives of your boards, turn those negatives into metal plates, affix those plates to a press and start churning out papers just as you return for the press check (and believe me, you press check every issue after the horrible, oversaturated catastrophe you still call Black November). Then you go home and pass out, waking up the next morning and getting to work to greet a big truck and unload thousands and thousands of newspapers in bundles, which fill up the lobby until your distribution team loads them up into smaller trucks and drives them out to streetcorner boxes and coffee shops. And you grab a coffee and a breakfast sandwich, and sit down with a copy of the new issue, flip through it and marvel — still, after doing this for however many years — that only yesterday all of this was still on your computer. Three days ago, all of it was still in your head.
My big secret is, I’ll still get that feeling when I press the “publish” button on this post. Only instead of that entire scenario described above, now all you need is WordPress, and it’ll be out into the world before you even have time to spellcheck it.
Well, I suppose you also still need the dream.