Help me outta my wump (web design slump)
August 13, 2014 9:57 AM   Subscribe

I've designed web sites for years, but lately I'm finding it has become increasingly difficult. I think this has much to do with prevailing design and technology trends -- which apparently don't agree with me.

I've been making sites since back in the early HTML days, though I am primarily a graphic designer. My code skills (HTML, CSS) have always "just enough." Back when, I'd work up some looks for a site in Photoshop or Illustrator, and then figure out how to craft it into a functioning site.

Several years ago I started working with Wordpress, since all my clients required some sort of admin access. I now build sites with a Wordpress framework theme (Headway). I don't generally use pre-designed themes because they seem to limit, and I like to think I'm designing the site.

Lately, though, I'm really finding the design process hard and frustrating. Seems the days of unique web design are gone and soooo many sites now have roughly the same paradigm. I've been spending a ton of time doing things that are not very productive designwise - shopping the right plugins, trying to get them to work, messing with the framework etc. And for whatever reason, this does not work with my design mojo. I think my old process worked well for me (ie. sketch it out and make a design), but currently everything is so driven by Wordpress/Headway/Plugins and the prevailing design trends that I don't know how to work design into the mix. These days, my role seems to be more of a site "cobbler-togetherer," and it's not working for me.

Designers and Web Gurus (particularly the more "aged" ones): Have you experienced this? Is there a workaround for you?
posted by ecorrocio to Work & Money (6 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I also mostly design and build bespoke Wordpress sites for clients as my fulltime job.

So if I'm right, there are two things here - one is the uninspired creative malaise that you feel, and one is the general dissatisfaction of your development methods.

Like you, I don't think they're unconnected. By now, you know what you can accomplish with Headway, and you're designing to fit that. As with any WYSIWYG development environment, you're probably hitting the barriers of what you can comfortably do quite quickly. Perhaps you should jettison the Headway theme and move into proper bespoke theme development?

I'd also get a solid library of reliable plugins, your ACFs and Gravity Forms. Try and work with those, and any client's exotic requests are treated as such.

90% of the time, I'm either building bespoke themes with Underscores or Roots, or providing custom code tweaks on existing sites. I spend next to no time plugin hunting. There's no getting around entering content, but it should be a chargeable service.

There are a tremendous amount of uninspired websites around, all choc-a-bloc with huge desaturated photos. One upside of this is that there's a much bigger focus on actual UX, and tbh I find this a pretty satisfying thing to focus on.

Perhaps there is also someone in your peer group who you'd enjoy working with? Collaborative projects can be rejuvenating. If you land a big project it might be a good opportunity to try it out.

Happy to natter on further if this is helpful, either on here or via MeFi Mail.
posted by Magnakai at 10:16 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Magnakai, thanks. Can you elaborate a bit on what kind of code knowledge is required to make use something like Underscores or Roots?
posted by ecorrocio at 11:38 AM on August 13, 2014

Using Headway is your choice. It is totally possible to create wordpress themes completely by hand. I have many clients with wordpress sites that I've taken over the maintenance for and only 1 of them used Headway (or similar) and they ultimately decided to ditch it and have the design built the "old" way.

If you don't like using Headway, why not just not use it? It would help to be familar with PHP but you don't really need more than that just for building themes. You'll still need plugins for non-standard functionality if you don't write code but you can style up the output just like normal.
posted by missmagenta at 12:51 PM on August 13, 2014

Response by poster: missmagenta - I didn't say I don't like Headway. I think it's quite good, and flexible. I'm speaking more of the approach to designing sites required in the current tech environment. It's not about the tools so much as a how web design has changed, and trying to find my groove in the current paradigm. Thanks tho.
posted by ecorrocio at 1:20 PM on August 13, 2014

Oh, I hear you loud and clear, and echo your frustration. I also lament that we've fallen into these design paradigms, and reminisce about the days of websites that were memorable because they had solid concepts behind them and didn't use templates. Even before Wordpress, though, I found the majority of "Brochure Websites" fell into boring territory fast. Remember the Hockey Stick!?

What has worked for me in this situation is making an effort to seek out projects that involve more challenging user experience patterns than "brochure websites" provide. Find more clients who need design for software, web apps in particular. This is where I find the most satisfaction, because it's custom work that's always different, and can be informed very well by usability testing. You'll have to partner with a developer, though.

If you want to stick with brochure websites, then maybe try getting projects through an ad agency or design firm. The budgets are typically much higher than freelance, and the expectations for originality are a lot higher. You also will not be expected to do all the coding, because they have dedicated developers for that.
posted by oxisos at 2:59 PM on August 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're going to create bespoke templates, you would need to use HTML, CSS, PHP, and probably JavaScript. What starter themes do is give you most of the structure. They're basically custom theme boilerplates. You would be hacking them up to create your own themes.

Underscores is Automattic's own starter theme. Probably the simplest, it has just enough structure and information to give you a running start.

Bones is a little more fully featured. I used it a couple of times and ended up ripping out enormous swathes of it. However, it is very well commented, so might be good for someone less confident. Just don't be afraid to use the delete key.

Roots is an enormous, complicated starter theme. It changes a lot of default WP functionality. Definitely very useful if you can get your head around it, but I would recommend being very familiar with Wordpress conventions beforehand.
posted by Magnakai at 11:18 PM on August 13, 2014

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