Blank Slate

Joe Trotter writes:

I have a penchant for knowing — just, well, knowing — when a blog or website is powered by WordPress. You know? Way too many links in the sidebar or header, usually styled the same way? Info all over the place? A candidly modified Kubrick theme? Referring to static pages as, omigod, Pages?

Here’s what makes it worse: every single blog I want to be like, Kottke, Daring Fireball, Design Observer, et cetera — they all have these “I’m a blog but have actual class” air to them. And guess what - they’re all powered by Movable Type. I’ve been denying there’s a connection. There, quite simply, is. Wordpress has become so widespread, so recommended — it’s becoming the new Blogspot. And that — that mutiny of identity — is the path Six Apart has simply, artfully avoided.

This is an interesting observation, but it’s a conflation of software and templates. Movable Type sites based on its default templates are just as easy to identify as those based on WordPress’s default templates.1 What makes the sites Trotter mentions notable isn’t that they’re all using Movable Type, but that they’re all based on original designs.

What makes Design Observer so good isn’t that it feels Movable Type-y, but that it feels Design Observer-y. Zeldman uses WordPress, and the result is pure Zeldman-y goodness. The same goes for WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg — nothing about his Photo Matt weblog looks or feels WordPress-y to me.

I’ve never seriously investigated WordPress, but I’m nearly certain that if I wanted to, I could switch Daring Fireball from Movable Type to WordPress without changing the design at all. It would likely require some mod_rewrite jiggery-pokery to keep the URLs the same and a different technique to assemble the front page, with its intermingling of articles and Linked List blurbs. But it’s just HTML and CSS; the software that generates it should be no more noticeable or relevant to you, the reader, than is whether a magazine was laid out using QuarkXPress or InDesign.

I did not design Daring Fireball by starting with one of Movable Type’s default templates. I started the visual design with a blank sheet of paper, and then moved on to an empty Photoshop file.2 I designed the markup starting with an empty XHTML 1.0 skeleton in BBEdit. I designed the URLs on pen and paper, trying to maximize clarity and structure while minimizing cruft and length.

Yes, even URLs are designed. When I started DF in August 2002, nearly all Movable Type-powered weblogs used URLs such as: http://example.com/archives/003495.html, where the number is a unique sequential identifier for each entry generated by Movable Type. Almost nothing in such URLs is useful:

  • The word “archives” is superfluous.
  • The number is meaningful only to the software, not to the reader. Additionally, this structure makes it difficult to switch to different software while continuing to use the same URLs.
  • The .html extension is unsightly and needless.

DF’s article URLs look like this: /2007/03/blank_slate, following a very simple and self-evident pattern: /year/month/slug. I considered the perhaps more obvious /year/month/date/slug, but decided against it. Including the day of the month would add three extra characters to each URL, and add very little useful information — monthly granularity is good enough in the long run for a web site where I seldom publish more than one article on any given day (unless I wished to repeat the same slug line within the same month, which strikes me as counter to the purpose of including a slug within the URL). The year, month, and slug provide useful context — just by looking at the URL alone, you know when it was written and perhaps have a rough idea what it is about. I can usually look at one of DF’s URLs and remember which specific article it refers to.3

Most weblog systems now use similar URLs by default, including Movable Type. But Movable Type’s older, cruft-laden default URLs weren’t a limitation of the software; they were a function of the default templates. Designing is thinking, and if you care about design, every detail — the layout, the colors, the markup, the URL structure — deserves to be thought about.

Default templates are terrific for people who can’t or don’t want to design their own — but they’re terrible starting points for anyone attempting to establish their own unique brand. If you start with nothing, you’re forced to think about everything.


  1. Trotter specifically mentions the wildly popular “Kubrick” template for WordPress. It’s a pleasant enough theme, visually, and thus easy to see why it’s now the default style for new WordPress weblogs. But I’ve always thought it poorly named, as the design strikes me as decidedly un-Kubrickian — too friendly, too round, too busy. 

  2. It took me six weeks to choose the exact shade of Daring Fireball’s background color, #4a525a

  3. Originally, the “slug” portion of DF’s URLs comprised the entire title of the article. Which meant that articles with long titles also had long URLs. Long titles can be amusing; long URLs are simply annoying. I fixed this at some point in 2003. 

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