Blog Design Solutions

18 comments | Posted: 4 March 06 in Books, by Nathan Smith

Blog Design Solutions I just finished reading this tome of knowledge, and all I can say is: Wow. I was a little worried at first, when the book opened with the definition of a “web log,” that perhaps this would be geared too much towards beginners, but by the time I made it all the way through, I knew my initial assumption was wrong. If this were an O’Reilly book, it would no doubt be titled Blogging: the Definitive Guide.

Blog Design Solutions is characterized by the literary flair typical of books published by Friends of ED. The list of authors includes many of the big names in the world of blogging and design: Andy Budd, Simon Collison, Chris J. Davis, Michael Heilemann, John Oxton, David Powers, Richard Rutter and Phil Sherry.

I for one am thankful that Phil Sherry decided to follow through on this book idea, and that he rounded up such knowledgeable people to help him with the task. This fearless group of world citizens takes you through the very basics of how blogs (web logs) came about, all the way through to writing your own content management system, touching on just about everything in between.

Ch. 1-3:

Chapters one and two are pretty straightforward, with Phil explaining the beginnings of blogging software, and David showing how to set up a local testing environment. Chapter three is an overview of the inner workings of MovableType. Not to detract from Andy’s writing ability, which is top-notch, but MT is not a solution I would recommend to any of our Godbit readers.

My opinion on this issue aligns with that of Mark Pilgrim. This restrictive licensing is mentioned briefly on page 79, and is the reason that for a church environment with multiple site authors, MT is not a viable solution. While this licensing fee is certainly not exorbitant, it is unnecessary with so many free CMS options available. That being said, for a single author it would be fine.

Ch. 4:

For me, this book really begins on page 114, not because the previous chapters aren’t worth reading, but this is when Colly unleashes his ExpressionEngine expertise with a fury. It should be noted that since the writing of this book, the EE Core now can be used free of charge for personal or non-profit purposes. So, you can safely disregard the section about the Trial Version and the Zend Optimizer, because this has essentially been replaced by the new EE Core. pMachine cares about people, even giving away $15,000 for their shootout.

It is refreshing to see a company make its licensing more user-friendly rather than the inverse (as was the case with MT). Ever since then, I’ve been tinkering with EE and wanting to learn more about it, to use for churches. This system is so robust and flexible, it could probably benefit from having an entire book.

Simon curbs his enthusiasm well though, and manages to pack quite a bit of information into his single allotted chapter. With so many other great CSS books and resources out there, I was glad that he focused mainly on how EE actually works. It has a very intuitive tag scheme, making setting up templates more streamlined. Add to that unlimited custom fields, and it’s quite a package. Aside from calling American football “rubbish” (p.147) this was a good chapter.

Ch. 5:

From a pure entertainment standpoint, chapter five takes the cake. Chris and Michael paint a beautiful word picture of a promised land “filled with rivers of chocolate, fluffy bunnies to frolic with, and WordPress support.” It’s not all fun and games though, because these guys delve right into the code, and really show you how to get the most out of this open-source publishing platform.

If you are one of many people who use WP for a personal blog, but are intimidated by what’s “under the hood,” fear not. This tandem duo helps to demystify those cryptic <?php…?> tags sprinkled throughout the templating system. First, they cover what drives the default Kubrick template, and who better to do it than the designer himself. Then, they give you some expert pointers on how to gut it and create your own distinctive blog template.

So, if you are looking to run a blog in the purest sense of the word, this chapter is probably where you will want to start. WP has trackbacks, great tagging and many categorization options. Additionally, it starts you out with a pretty nice template, which is probably why there is such a saturation of Kubrick based websites out there. As of version 1.5, it can even handle static pages. Also covered is installation of plugins, such as Clean Archives by Shawn Grimes.

Though it was not specifically mentioned in the book, if you are a WordPress user, allow me to suggest you try out the Tiger Admin plugin by Steve Smith. This will pretty up your admin interface, giving it a look reminiscent of OSX, rather than the comparatively dull defaults. Also, if you’d like to learn more about Chris J. Davis, be sure to check out the interview we did awhile ago.

Ch. 6:

What WordPress is to blogging, I’d dare say Textpattern is to multi-sectioned sites. This is the system I use to run my own personal site, and it is also what drives Godbit. What it may lack in the social web aspects, it more than makes up for in the intuitiveness with which it allows you to organize a site. In that regard, as well as templating syntax, it is similar to larger systems like EE. If EE could be likened to a Tyrannosaurus rex, then TXP would be a Velociraptor.

In this chapter, Oxton shows how to harness the power of this versatile system. He guides the reader through the initial setup to actually creating a custom design entirely from scratch using Fireworks, XHTML and CSS. Of all the chapters in this book, this was the one I was most curious about. If you read his blog regularly, you know that Oxton employs quite colorful language, and at times his articles consist more of nonsensical swearing than anything else.

However, in this chapter he demonstrates his web design genius by employing the help of Kev Adamson to draw a “stretchy man,” which becomes the basis for the site template. The header literally is the area with the cartoon’s head, and the footer contains his feet. He masterfully illustrates the power of TXP’s output_form tag, essentially like PHP includes in the case of WordPress. If you’ve been looking to learn more about TXP, you won’t be disappointed.


Last and certainly not least is the chapter by Richard, who pretty much singlehandedly made em a usable format with his 62.5% text resizing tutorial. He covers in depth how to create your own content management system using PHP and MySQL. While I could go on and on about it, since this chapter is a custom tutorial, you really just need to read along and follow through his examples. Suffice it to say that it is quite informative and could prove beneficial to those of you looking to make your own unique way of doing things.


In short, this is the book I wish existed when I first started learning about content management systems. It could have saved me countless hours reading up on all the various options out there, and testing each one to see how the syntax worked. If you are looking to get a jump-start in offering dynamic ways for your clients or church to keep their own content up to date, this book is undoubtedly for you. I would highly suggest putting it on your must read list.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 Ben

    OK, that tears it, I’m getting this book now.

  2. 2 Yannick

    Very nice review Nathan. While I’m sure the book is informative, I think you did a pretty good job of informing us with this review. It definitely sounds like a must buy book.

  3. 3 Colly

    Great review! Thanks loads, I enjoyed reading this…

  4. 4 John Oxton

    I was very nervous about reading my first ever review, so thanks for making it a good one! :)

  5. 5 Lea

    I just ordered this book a couple days ago and can’t wait to receive it. As someone who’s fiddled and created sites with all of the software listed, I think this will really help as a handy reference tool.

  6. 6 Chris J. Davis

    That was a wonderful review Nathan, very well written and balanced. And I was as surprised as you that Oxton was able to keep it clean in the book…. * evil grin *

  7. 7 Phil Sherry

    Thanks for that. I gotta say, if all the reviews are going to be like this one, then I’ll be rather happy! :D

  8. 8 Shawn Grimes

    Nice review Nathan. It is truly a great book. I’ve enjoyed reading it. As an added bonus for myself, my site and my Clean Archives plug-in was used in the book thanks to good ole Chris. I had no idea that was going to be in there! Look ma, I’m in print forever!

  9. 9 Nathan Smith

    Shawn: Congrats! I saw that, and had meant to get it into this review, but there was so much info to cover I forgot. I’ve spliced it in there, as it’s well deserved.

  10. 10 Richard Rutter

    Hi Nathan – thanks for the kind review – glad you liked the book (phew!). Can I be cheeky and ask if there’s any chance you could post your review (or a summary) on Amazon?

  11. 11 Nathan Smith

    Richard: Done. It should be posted in a few days, or whenever the Amazon people get around to approving / moderating it. Great chapter, by the way.

  12. 12 Geof Harries

    Nathan – You should work for the publishing company. Your post here led me to purchase the book from I’d had it in my shopping cart for weeks, but didn’t know if I should go through – until I read your review. Nice work!

  13. 13 Nathan Smith

    Geof – Nah, I like doing website stuff too much. Graphics and code are more fun to me. I wouldn’t mind writing a book, but it’s all been written already.

  14. 14 Phil Sherry

    Nathan, if it had all been written already, I wouldn’t have had the idea for this book in the first place! ;)

  15. 15 Geof Harries

    Nathan – I installed Movable Type (the free version) on one of my domains this week and would disagree with you on not being able to recommend it to Godbit readers.

    While it takes some knowledge of PHP, FTP, permissions and CGI, it’s a pretty painless manual install. Not dead simple compared to Wordpress, but I think people should be encourage to check MT out. The user interface to the CMS alone makes it a worthwhile investment.

  16. 16 Syed Huda

    Great review! It’s a brilliant book. All the authors were great. I’ve edged towards Wordpress with the fancy K2 thing for my first blog. :)

  17. 17 Adam Messinger

    You’ve officially convinced me to by this book. Also, I’d say that your characterization of Textpattern vs. EE and WP is probably the most apt and succinct description I’ve ever read of that CMS. Nicely done.

  18. 18 Nathan Smith

    Geof: My point on MovableType was mainly about the limitations in licensing for multi-author sites, not the complexity of the installation. However, with the purchasing fees comes tech-support, so it’s a good trade-off in that respect.

    Syed / Adam: Thanks, I’m glad you found the review helpful. I guess I get used to talking in analogies, trying to explain what it is I do to my family and friends. They don’t care too much to hear about code most of the time.


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