August 3, 2007

Notes on Blog Design, or Why I Changed

Those few of you who visit the Found History site directly (as opposed to reading posts with a feed reader), will know that over the weekend I overhauled the blog’s basic layout and design. The change was partly inspired by conversations Mills, Dan and I had on the latest Digital Campus, which got me thinking more carefully about what I really want for Found History and how best to meet those aims.

The first thing people will notice are changes to the navigation.

Old Found History designI liked my old design, but in the last few months it had become clear to me that the layout couldn’t accommodate all the content I need to display. I decided that nearly two years worth of posts required more than just a chronological archive, and though I tried to add categories to my old design, the two column nav couldn’t handle it. The increased length of the sidebar gave the pages just too much vertical scroll.

I also decided that I needed tabs for personal information like my CV and bio. When I first started blogging, I decided I wanted to keep some distance between Found History and professional identity. I put my blog at and my personal pages at Yet over the past 20 months I have realized that it’s not really possible nor even desirable to keep my professional identity separate from my blogging identity. In some ways I have become Found History. Surely at this point as many people online know me as Found History as know me as Tom Scheinfeldt, and my work at Found History increasingly informs my other public history work at CHNM. Separating my personal pages and hence my professional identity from Found History implied (and perhaps really reflected) some shame and fear about the blog. Maybe that was true at one time, but it isn’t any longer, and it’s long past time to pull together these estranged strands of my online self.

The second change is that I’m now using an off-the-shelf WordPress theme rather than one of my own design.

new_design.jpgI want strong branding and a visual identity for Found History, but I decided it doesn’t have to be a totally unique one. The work involved in maintaining a totally unique branding and custom theme for Found History through technology changes, upgrade cycles, and changing intentions and uses for the blog has become practically impossible for me. I just don’t have the time. This is a predicament similar to the one Dan found himself in as he struggled to maintain and finally abandoned his own blogging software. While maintaining a theme isn’t half as hard as maintaining an entire software package, the very same roll-your-own vs. out-of-the-box questions and tradeoffs are at work. Just as Dan decided to leave it to the WordPress open source community to maintain his blog’s infrastructure, I’m leaving it to the commons to maintain the trickier parts of my blog’s look and feel. That’s why I’ve chosen Cutline, a WordPress theme with a large and active user community and a committed developer core, to skin my site. For now it offers me the right mix of power and convenience. On the one hand, there are ample opportunities for customization—for example, the header images you’ll find across the site are all my own choosing; in fact, true to the spirit of Found History I took all the header images from creative commons licensed photos tagged “found” and “history” on Flickr. On the other hand, using Cutline should give me room to stop fiddling with my style sheet—you should find, for instance, that the site loads faster, pages render more exactly across different browsers and platforms, and fonts are easier on the eyes, though to be honest the theme could use a print style sheet. In short I think outsourcing Found History’s design for a time will let me focus more on posting, and that’s what I think Found History needs most of all right now. At least until I want to start fiddling with that style sheet again.

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