New digs for UMW Blogs, or the anatomy of a redesign

UMW Blogs has got a brand new bag, with no small assistance from Andy “EDU” Rush nation who turned me on to the beautiful theme PrimePress (Andy’s the go to theme guy without question), along with Serena Epstein an Jerry Slezak who provided the gorgeous header images featuring the UMW campus. The redesign took a couple of days with some on and off work, and before I get into the details of that, I wanted to take a quick poll. PrimePress offers you two different looks, and I wanted to know which one people preferred.

Here is UMW Blogs with the gray background:

UMW Blogs with Gray Background

And here it is with the white background:

UMW Blogs with white background

[poll id=”4″]

Now for the anatomy of the redesign of UMW Blogs. I have to say that a year ago this time I had spent many a long hour trying to get everything working on the front page of UMW Blogs. I blogged the process for creating the front page here, and talked extensively about the elaborate hack to get sitewide tags and a sitwewide archive working here.

This time around, my life was significantly easier, and I think that’s a testament to how far the WPMu community has come over the last year. It never ceases to amaze me how folks like Donncha, D Sader, andrea_r, Andre Malan, and Enej Bajgoric (amongst many, many others), have made the creation of a state of the art publishing platform for Mary Washington elegant, simple, and powerful as hell. These are people that have little or no affiliation with UMW, but have nonetheless enabled truly cutting edge publishing possibilities for little money and even less programming know how. I love the whole thing.

The Home Page

The homepage for the redesign really captures just how much easier things have become, and also points to some necessary re-aligning of plugins, resources, and syndication. For example, the previous version of UMW Blogs front page was almost entirely driven by the BDP RSS plugin for aggregation, in this iteration it has all but disappeared. I am keenly aware that the developer for this awesome plugin hasn’t updated it in over a year, and while it still works swimmingly in version 2.6 (a testament to the solid coding), I’m not sure how much longer it can hold out. So I’m afraid it’s high time to try and move on. That’s where two plugins I have already blogged about recently have allowed me to transition away from BDP RSS with little or no separation anxiety: Donncha’s Sitewide Tags plugin and D Sader’s “3-in-1” widget.

Between these two plugins I can have the 10 most recent sitwewide posts, a sitewide tag cloud, and a sitewide archive all on the front page sidebar. These features would have been impossible for me last year, and now it is as simple as two plugins and a customizable widget. Moreover, Donncha’s Sitewide Tag goodness single-handedly powers the Recent Posts, Tags, and Archives pages of UMW Blogs that I will get to in more detail below.

As I mentioned already, PrimePress is the theme, and the header images are homegrown. The login is a little bit of PHP code Patrick Murray-John whipped up, and you can download it here and drop it into your sidebar should you need it.

Finally, the blog that powers the UMW Blogs homepage will be the site we use for the feature articles that chronicle and share the activity, cool blogs, and course projects that are happening throughout the UMW community.

Courses, Support, and Contact Pages

The Courses page is pretty straightforward, and it is going to be a directory of courses being hosted on UMW Blogs that will be up and running by Monday. I have some idea of how I am going to feed this stuff in, but for the most part it will be relatively traditional directory of courses being taught around campus using this publishing platform, but I have some more thinking to do here–any recommendations?

The Support pages are awesome, and this marks for me one of the most significant leaps forward over the last year. Namely, the Bliki has arrived people! And that is thanks to the awesome work of Brian Lamb’s UBC rat pack of developers like Andre Malan and Enej Bajgoric. They are working on integrating MediaWiki and WPMu as a kind of symbiotic distributed publishing framework, which Brian talked about in his screencast here. The fruit of this syndication rich framework has made my life a million times easier thank to Enej’s plugin Wiki Inc, which basically takes an article from a MediaWIki installation and republishes it seamlessly on a WordPress page. So, all the documentation for UMW Blogs done in MediaWiki can now be effortlessly pulled into a page on the home blog for UMW Blogs. So support pages like the FAQ, WordPress Guide, and “10 Ideas for Using UMW Blogs” are all MediaWiki articles posing as blog pages—bliki bling bling!

Wiki Inc Plugin for WordPress

Wiki Inc Plugin for WordPress

And then there is the Embed MediaWiki Sections plugin that allows you to copy and paste a section of a wiki article into a blog post or page, kinda like YouTube embedding for MediaWiki content. I played with this one a bit earlier in the Summer, but haven’t got back to it yet. Not sure if all the bugs are out, but I’m convinced this will make things insanely interesting for the holy grail of the Bliki.  All of which is just another name for a distributed publishing framework that can be collaborative, simple, and polished all at the same time. Disco!

The Contact page is the Dagon Design Secure Form Mailer plugin inserted in a page, simple, secure, and customizable.

News, Sitewide Tags, and Archives

The News tab on the Front page links to the UMW News Blog, which is actually a separate blog from the home blog (http://news.umwblogs.org) which gives it a separate feed, and a simple way to pull in the RSS feed for News into the home page sidebar without it interfering with Feature articles. The trick to making it integrate seamlessly is just dressing it up in the same theme with the same widgets.  And once you hack the navigation menu to match that on the homepage of UMW Blogs, it’s done. Pretty simple.

The Sitewide Tags tab also links out to another blog, which is actually the blog that is automatically created through Donncha’s Sitewide Feeds plugin, I already mentioned earlier. This blog/plugin also changes the game in my mind, and it provides everything from sitewide posts, tags, categories, and archives in one fell swoop. It rules, and I simply dressed this site up in the same theme as the home page, and hacked the navigation menu accordingly. Moreover, if you go to the front page of the tags.umwblogs.org blog you’ll see the most recent post, which on the front page has been substituted with featured blogs. The Tags tab is just a page on the tags.umwblogs.org blog that has a Simple Tags tag cloud running, which will by default collect all the tags from around UMW Blogs, as well as provide a working feed for each tag (major possibilities here!).

The Sitewide Archives tab does much of the same thing, but this is just using a hacked version of the archive template for PrimePress that will allow people to search all of UMW Blogs, see posts archived by month (or day or year), as well as the last 100 posts that have come through the system.

And voila! That’s it! All the hacking and kludging I had to do last year has been replaced by clean and elegant solutions that make this years model a step up indeed.  We couldn’t have done it without the community, so a big thanks to all of you making WPMu about as bitchin a publishing engine as I’ve seen.

Now, the semester is poised to start, and it’s time to make this baby sing with 1500 new blogs.  Let’s get ’em!

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19 Responses to New digs for UMW Blogs, or the anatomy of a redesign

  1. Jen says:

    I hate to say this, but the gray looks a bit like a Ning site. Thanks for sharing all the work you are doing!

  2. Alan Levine says:

    As always you guys rock. My hunch is there will not be a definitive vote on the Grey Vs White epic. Why not do some theme switcher? I would guess they differ just by a part of the CSS sheet.

    I’m excited about (and eager to try) the MediaWiki content integration, which looks very powerful.

    My small amount of quibblage is about the use of page geography. The two column layout certainly works to get more above the fold, but because the sidebars are not long, all of those pages that go below the fold really do not get to use all of the available real estate; the main column content looks pinched against the vast white tundra on the right.

    Also, because your sidebar widgets are generally pulling “recent” content, my hunch s unless it is a crazy river of new stuff all the time, the content is going to not change all that much in the sidebars. You know I am a random kind of guy- and my unscientific hunch is once the human eye/brain ascertains that content is fixed, they are not even looking at the sidebars.

    That’s all pretty minor, and I would guess most people are going to spend time on the varied individual and class blogs.

    Thanks for the write up and giving all of the plugins a workout so now I can cherrypick the ones I want to use

  3. Reverend says:

    @Jen,

    Ning, huh? That’s depressing, but gray is beating white out 3 to 1, so I’m nonplussed.

    @Alan,

    I agree with you about the white space on the longer pages. I am actually working on a template for the support pages, and it should make the vast not so vast. I wish I knew how to wrap the content around that sidebar, but that is beyond my CSS knowledge, but I’ll do a search.

    I’m not so worried about the content remaining fresh, I can randomize the tags and there is enough activity streaming through regularly that the Recent Posts sidebar will be relevant to just anyone coming back.I’m trying to get recent comments up as well, but the sitewide feed plugin I have for that is borking, which is annoying.

    I don’t think people will spend too much time on the front page, but I think this new version will provide a lot of information for a random visitor that was far too much work to make available just last year.

    Thanks for the feedback Alan, I still have much to do 🙂

  4. Jim;

    Your work with WPMU is an ideal model for those who are developing proyects with this platforms. Your front page looks sensational. This is something should be easier to create for beginners. I hope that in the future we may have a gallery of front pages for WPMU.

  5. Reverend says:

    Mario,

    That means a ton to me coming from you. I feel like you and I kinda came up together with WPMu at the university, back in the dark days of a year ago we were feeling our way around blind. dreading the upgrade to 1.3 🙂

    And now look what a WPMu install and a couple of plugins can do. More than that, I can’t take any credit for UMW Blogs looking so good, I outright stole the theme from my colleague Andy Rush.

    As usual I’ve got nothing, but that’s why I like WPMu, even if you have no skills you can kick ass on just about any CMSs, LMS, IMS, or whatever other nonsense there is out there.

  6. Esther says:

    This is great! Esp thanks for sharing the code that Patrick Murray-John wrote for a sidebar login. I widget-ized it for my own install, much better than the Meta widget.

  7. Reverend says:

    @Esther,

    Glad to be of service, Patrick is the man!

  8. Wiki Inc. is probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen. Embedding a live wiki page within a blog post? what is NOT awesome about that. Excellent plugin. I’ve just installed it on ucalgaryblogs.ca and will be looking to find people to play with it.

  9. Pingback: Outta Bounds » Blog Archive » That’s one way to build a dynamic front page for WPMU…

  10. Reverend says:

    @D’Arcy,

    I agree entirely, the Bliki is here. We talked the talk, and UBC walked the walk. I love those guys, major shout out to Enej for making it happen.

  11. Pingback: WP_LE « OUseful.Info, the blog…

  12. Esther says:

    Did you have to modify Wiki Inc to get it to work with WPMu? (I’m not having any problems on my local WP install, but it’s not working on my test WPMu on the server…)

    (P.S. Revisiting this post after Brian’s post Reuse, resources, re-whatever… )

  13. @Esther – it should work fine in WPMU – the plugin doesn’t go in mu-plugins though, but in the shared /wp-content/plugins folder, and has to be enabled for each blog that wants to use it.

  14. Reverend says:

    @Esther and D’Arcy,

    Hey D’Arcy where is that beautiful screencast you did showing folks how to use that plugin? It could help Esther, and I sure wouldn’t mind featuring the inner workings of this plugin on the UMW Blogs homepage.

  15. Esther says:

    I know this isn’t a support forum… but maybe you can help?
    Using Wiki Inc on a local WP install is just fine, when I try activating the plugin for a blog on WPMu 2.6.2 I get this error:
    “Parse error: parse error, unexpected $ in /home/betablog/wp-content/plugins/WikiInc.php on line 168”
    (with all other plugins uninstalled, even mu-plugins is empty)

  16. Reverend says:

    Esther,

    Interesting, do you have a 2.6.1 version of WPMu running? Is it working there? I am using it on 2.6.1 so I don’t know if there are issues with the latest version of WPMu, nbut it is still working on 2.6.1.

    D’Arcy is running 2.6.2 on UCalgary blogs, he may know.

  17. I’m running 2.6.2 here, and all is well. Could the file have been borked on upload to the server?

  18. Esther says:

    I found the problem… it was strangely simple! Line 122 read “<?” and should have been “<?php”
    Working now! Thank you!

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