When I went on sabbatical a year ago, one of the first things I did was redesign this site. So why am I doing it again a year later? Not (just) because I was bored. I’ve found my needs changed, especially since I launched Occam’s Fireaxe. The previous design was built around the idea of two main landing pages, the front page for photos and the front page of the blog for writing. I really wanted a landing page for the Podcast, but adding that given the existing design was a major problem. I’ve also found that design also made discovery of content difficult so it really discouraged users from exploring and browsing.

I wanted to make it easier to explore some of the content areas I am trying to focus on, especially the reviews, and create a space specifically for Occam’s Fireaxe. Neither was easy — heck, not really possible — using the existing design and the theme it was based on, which was really oriented towards a photography portfolio site. So it was time to switch themes and do more than change a couple of highlight colors and a quick coat of paint.

On top of that, I found some of the decisions I made I wasn’t happy with. A big one was the color scheme. I chose a darker and fairly neutral palette to complement the photography, only to decide it looked dark and dingy and didn’t really show off anything well. And there were little things, like the logo, where I rendered my name in a nice script font — but I learned over time that if you didn’t already know what my name was, it was confusing because the scripting made it ambiguous whether it was “Von Rospach” or “Van Raspach”. oops.

I quickly decided on shifting to a magazine format, which is a very popular form in WordPress these days for good reason — starting with lots of flexibility. It allows me to shift from two front pages (pictures and text) to a single one where I can swap in focus areas as I want, giving me a modular capability to change things around as my needs and interests change. I settled on the theme Extras by Elegant Themes; I’ve used them for themes for various projects and really like the quality, and this is a newer one from them with a lot of built-in capabilities.

I also decided to design around the color green, mainly because I never have. I wanted something bright and light, and I felt the green color would complement the photography even if it wasn’t a neutral, so I started by picking a light mossy green and a deep hunter green and building out from there. I went with fairly safe and somewhat boring but readable fonts, Droid Serif and Droid Sans and I tried to build in a fair bit of open space around the content.

There was a lot of work behind the scenes, cleaning up content and dealing with architectural issues — for instance I had all of the content left over from the Three Dot Lounge experiment that I needed to edit and update away from that concept, and I’d put a lot of content into WordPress pages as evergreen content that I now of posts, and I’d decided I really didn’t like that for various reasons (one big one: Pages aren’t dated content, so when they get updated, it’s hard for people to notice).

Also on the back end I moved hosting from my VPS server I use to Dreamhost’s Dreampress system, and so far, I’m really happy with that. It’s much faster and it means there are fewer things I need to worry about managing, leaving (I hope) more time for content instead of administration.

The old site also required me to assign a cover photo to each image, but they were in a weird size and not really used in the design well, and that turned out to be a pain in the butt for no real value.

The new design solves these problems. Setting up a special landing page for a specific set of content is literally a five minute job. I can use cover photos when it makes sense but I don’t need to assign one and it doesn’t have to be a specific size.

As of today, I’m really happy with the results. I’ve pretty much deleted all of the things about the old site that were annoying me. we’ll find out over time what new annoyances I’ve designed in. This new design isn’t perfect, there’s still some tweaking I want to do, and there are areas of content — especially in the Reviews area — that need some rework. But overall, I’m happy. For now, because that’s the reality of design.

I am hoping I can live with this design for 2-3 years, and with this theme for at least two design iterations. Taking advantage of the capabilities of the theme let me move the redesign forward quickly (it actually took me longer to migrate the updated site to production, due to pilot errors and fun with SSL and certificates) but involves some technology lock-in to this theme, or at least to an Elegant Themes theme. My take is that if I were to ever move off of this theme I’d have to rebuild all of the pieces locked in to their features anyway, but it’s one thing to keep in mind when designing around a theme, because at some point, you’ll be redesigning it and you don’t want to make unnecessary work for yourself.

This whole process took about six weeks; I took a week off around my trip to Morro Bay, and lost another ten days to migration issues (I had some SSL learning curve to figure out, followed by some technical glitches in DNS the hosting company had to resolve). About half that time was in content updating and editing, doing cleanup and, because default image sizes are different (and bigger) in the new theme, I spent a couple of days migrating images and regenerating and placing them at the new sizes for most articles.

And now, with this done, I have about 20 broken links to fix that snuck through testing — mostly images that didn’t show up broken because they were pointing to the old production site during testing (hint: use relative links! and unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t so you have to remember to fix them), but I’ll have that done in an hour or so and then we’ll have a nice, clean and quick site and I can go back to content and the camera…

I’m curious what you think. This site still doesn’t support comments (one reason why: even with it disabled there are half a dozen spam comments in the spam queue, and three of those showed up while the site was still in the sandbox, which was open to view if you knew it existed but never mentioned to anyone anywhere). So please drop me a note via email or on twitter. I’d love to hear where you think it needs improvement, since I know it’s not perfect. Always open to new ideas.