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Theme Experience (THX) in core WordPress

For the past couple releases of WordPress I had the privilege of working on revamping the admin theme screens, probably my biggest core contribution since developing Twenty Eleven. Working on the WordPress.com theme showcase was one of the first side projects I did at Automattic, when we were just Lance, Ian and me on the Theme Team; and I’ve worked on the many iterations since then, so I’m glad I could bring part of that knowledge to help improve the core theme screens.

The project was initially called THX38 and started as a plugin during the 3.8 release cycle. After some user tests we settled on a complete revamp of the experience, using client side technologies to make it faster and more responsive. The design removed most of the text in the screen, allowing people to focus primarily on the theme screenshots. (I’m personally fond of the arrow navigation system that lets you browse themes casually with the keyboard — maybe coffee cup in the other hand. It’s a somewhat relaxing way of looking at themes.)

It uses Backbone.js to power the client side code, something many parts of the WordPress administration panels are starting to leverage. It’s a good bridge between the robustness of the current server side codebase and more dynamic technologies to help achieve better user experiences on the client — things like searching for an installed theme is instant. We managed to get this in very close to the release deadline. Another positive result is we ended up with leaner code than before, something that would help with future improvements.

For 3.9 (just released, go grab it or upgrade!) I worked on using the same architecture and UX to power the install-themes screen, which wasn’t touched in 3.8. This meant interacting with the .org API for querying themes. Again, this made it just in time. The end result is a faster and image focused browsing experience, that also paves the way for future iterations in the versions to come. That’s something I really like — we’ve now had two subsequent releases improving core aspects of the theme experience. This agile process aligns with the momentum that core WordPress development has been gaining since the last few releases, with rapid cycles during the year, and we are looking at even more improvements around multiple screenshots, filtering system, etc. We now have a solid base for it.

Thanks to everyone that helped getting this out there, during every milestone we passed — and my special gratitude to Shaun, Andrew and Gregory.

On the sayings of contemporary art

It seems to happen very often these days, that the textual editorials that accompany an art exhibition give the impression of having been created randomly, using some sort of lorem ipsum 1 generator, distinctive perhaps to the gibberish of the art world. Sometimes, it even looks as if it’s egregiously mangling arbitrary philosophical terms, throwing ontological significance at random intervals, without any aesthetic sense — nor, sometimes, even literary — whatsoever.

It approaches frightening extremes when it just reveals its utter lazy intellectualism, that builds truth for itself and then holds it to universal value, applauding its own empty wit. Every phrase seems to be more mindful about displaying a glossary of terms than in saying something relevant about the art it’s supposed to comment on. It’s always vehemently self-aware, but in absolute denial of its ephemeral nature and vagueness. Generalities, which abound, are laid out with a pretentious sense of morality, a pretentious sense of urgency in its aesthetic irrelevance. To whom?, once should ask. Because, in turn, this means such thoughts can easily be applied to any art display; and it would make no difference at all. It would appear they are battling against the actual artwork to achieve their status, to be considered themselves works of art.

What results is almost reminiscent of a surrealist cadavre exquis composition — this time with all the veils of a truly thoughtful discourse shaped by a single mind. Let’s be clear — it’s building connections to a work just because it’s physically connected to the art pieces it’s supposed to refer to, and because the reader is vehemently interested in making those connections work while nodding at the pace of its ridicule. All the correlation is drawn by the fact it’s in the same spatial context. Remove it from that context and it becomes a generic mix, of more or less persuasive ideas, but with no particular coherence. Move the walls of text from one exhibition to the other, and you would be hard pressed to spot any mismatch — so generic that they are not saying anything at all.

Notes:

  1. Placeholder text often used in graphic design that bears no meaning. More in Wikipedia.

Quick note and a design update

Last year was my most productive yet here on my blog. It’s an all too common case that I stop posting things when I grow tired of the site design. The last one, thusly, was quite an achievement: it carried me for more than a year. Still, my later silence meant it was time to shuffle things around a little — if anything, just in the name of movement.

I also have to acknowledge that sometime in the past few years I stopped thinking of new designs and instead began to embrace the fact that I’ll be constantly iterating on my website for as long as I have it. Even this iteration is but a refinement of what I already had in place — same navigation, same content structure, same pieces. I’ve paid more attention to the typography this time (using Dolly, a favourite of mine) and kept the Tonesque integration, which I like a lot. (Images and illustrations are a part of who I am, so I just embrace that even more with this design.)

Now that my disdain with the old design is relieved, I have quite a few posts and pictures on the drafting board that I want to publish. It’s been a good year so far.

Espejismo is a 30 seconds short film created by my two brothers with some friends, and with Belén doing the acting role. Check it out — it turned out well and was selected to participate on a film festival in Madrid. They all travelled there back in June and I joined them right after an Automattic meetup in Saratoga Springs. We took the opportunity to have a short vacation together in Spain and southern France after the festival.

A hallmark of the journey for me was visiting the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida with frescoes by Goya. We were also quite delighted by the impressive landscapes near and around Carcassonne.

Firenze and its hills

After the quick visit to Verona I went to Florence for the Automattic Theme Team meetup. We didn’t stay in the city itself, but in a villa in the surrounding hills. Needless to say it was mesmerizing — specially recognizing those Renaissance landscapes so vividly recorded on the paintings from the masters of yore.

Driving there was a bit of an odyssey, but a fun one nonetheless. The place we stayed at was built mostly with stone. We spent our time between the house and the restaurants at the small localities near us. One of the days we made a proper visit to Florence, in which we went to the Uffizi gallery, a long time item on my list of places to visit. Unfortunately, the Adoration of the Magi was removed for some restoration work, so I missed that one this time.

WordPress Moleskine

Today I received a package on the mail containing one of the beautiful WordPress 10th Anniversary Moleskine notebooks. I have the pencils ready for some glorious marks.

wordpress-10-moleskine

Thank you, WordPress.

The mind needs both analog and digital spaces to play and create, and we see those two spaces working harmoniously for a long time to come. We hope people take the blank pages of these WordPress 10th Anniversary Moleskine notebooks and use them to create big and small ideas, to nurture stories and news, and then publish their words to the world via their WordPress sites. — Matt Mullenweg

I redesign this place more often
than I write on it.