Feedreaders and WordPress Themes Vs. The Design Experience

One of the many reasons I prefer Netvibes to other feedreaders is the amount of options — headlines, summaries, tabs, thumbnails, widgets, and audio controls for podcasts. It’s a much richer experience that what we got in the early days of RSS, which was just a few headlines. Rich Ziade from Basement.org recently saw how Google Reader could detract from the visual experience:

If we rely on feed readers to consume information from the web, we no longer actually see the web. We just “hear” the raw data, triple-filtered and stripped of any intended style, character, personality or meaning beyond the words.

A few people suggested Ziade switch over to Netvibes, but that doesn’t entirely solve the problem of retaining your blog’s identity for an audience who never sees it, or possibly, doesn’t care about it. Netvibes is generous with the many ways it presents RSS data, but you’re still viewing it on their terms (unless you always follow links to their originating site). What concerns some bloggers is that the identity of the feedreader itself gets mingled in with the content. Kyle Meyer of Astheria recently asked “do feed readers kill blog identity?”

Writing style is really the only way for that identity to show through otherwise you’re lost…Bloglines might have well as written the post.

Personally, ‘€™ve avoided anything beyond an incoming feed of links to articles that others have published, but have purposefully avoided reading entire posts without reading them on their native site; it just doesn’t do justice to the content or the author when their words are removed from what is figuratively their digital persona…

Even earlier this year, Darren Rowse wondered “does blog design matter in an age of feed readers?“:

I’m finding that the numbers of [RSS] readers…is on the rise. As a result there are more and more loyal readers who can be reading your posts but who never actually visit your site and see its design.

All these concerns about RSS pose a similar question: if the content is compelling, how much does design matter? No one ever seems to agree. Many think RSS detracts from site-identity. As a designer, I’ve wondered the same thing about free WordPress themes.

WordPress Themes and Identity

What’s obvious is that WordPress themes make life simple for folks who want an attractive blog with a minimum of technical fuss. They don’t care that the theme they found in a free gallery wasn’t done by an experienced designer or that the CSS is bloated or that the sportscar in the masthead image has nothing to do with their sewing blog. They just want to publish their ideas at the cheapest rate, and I’m tempted not to argue with something that empowers so many writers.

On the downside, I stumble upon 10+ blogs a week running the popular Cutline theme. Even after reading them, I couldn’t tell you the URI or who wrote them or the overall subject matter; the identity is gone, save for a distinctive masthead photo. The content might project the author’s personality, but little else leaves an impression.

Watering down things further is the new breed of “theme designer” — folks who rely on WordPress as their sole solution, and for a cheap rate will put together “unique” themes that are virtually indistinguishable.

I know it’s wrong to assume everyone has the time, money or resources to care about visual identity. I try to remember that when I see many identical installations of Mimbo, my first and only WP theme. But I’m still thrilled when I see it customized beyond the point of recognition:

mimbo

mimbo

mimbo

mimbo

The Future

Five years from now, if 80% of the blog-reading public consumes content via RSS, and much of the design surrounding it is cookie-cutter, what role will design play?