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?

  • http://www.eksena.net HariSkwatir

    Hey Darren,

    What about my site?
    - http://www.eksena.net/

    It’s tweaked beyond recognition too. Lol.

  • http://www.cycling-challenge.com Will

    I think most people still use RSS feeds as a way of sifting through large amounts of data/info but still often/usually go to the actual site once they “find” something of interest. So design is still essential. For example making a comment almost always requires going to a site.

    Note BTW that Newvibes recently added a “show website” button in their feed reader (top right) that allows users to see the site (and design) of the feed they are reading WITHOUT leaving Netvibes.

    Regarding the Mimbo installations that are “no longer recognizeable” I think it shows the flexibility of the theme.

    To date most FREE themes are chosen by users for aesthetics more than function. Mimbo may be at the beginning of a new trend towards themes that are more functionality frameworks.

  • http://thenestedfloat.com Matt

    Man! Saucast’s implementation is terrific. You must be one proud papa.

    Obviously, there are no hard and fast answers to the questions you raise about RSS and site identity, but here are my two cents:

    For me it all hinges on what goals you’ve established for your site. Or put another way, why does your site exist? I’d argue that by definition, blogs exist 1) to disseminate information and 2) to stimulate conversation. Of course, you’ve got plenty of bloggers these days for whom the prime objective is “make money off of google ads,” but I (naively?) believe that you’ll always fail on that front if your content doesn’t hold up.

    If your main goal is to disseminate information, I don’t think losing the design via consumption through a feed reader should/could ever be considered a bad thing. I haven’t seen any research done on this, but I’d be willing to bet that folks that use a feed reader consume online content at a rate that’s an order of magnitude larger than those that only browse. All this new media/web 2.0 stuff ends up feeling so democratic in part because feed readers help focus attention on a broader range of information. For a reader who digs your blog, the feed reader is a nudge, a reminder that your site even exists after they’ve read that feed item from the New Your Times they just read – a publication with which you’d otherwise be unable to compete.

    Where does that leave blog design? It may not always be the case, but often, design’s prime objective is to sell something. I’d argue that for blogs, what you’re selling is the legitimacy of your information. I’m of the opinion that when someone subscribes via a feed reader, you’ve made the sale.

    That’s also why google’s adsense makes me so nauseous. It introduces a variable into the equation that prizes page hits over content delivery and confuses the real purpose – and ultimately, the value – of blogs.

    I’d also argue that many blogs – like your example of a sewing site with a race car masthead – will fail to establish legitimacy because there’s a rift between visual design and content. For a family member blogging about their new baby, all you may need is Cutline with a banner photo of the little rugrat. That way the rest of the family knows they’ve found the right place. For a start-up, business, or established non-profit, the list of requirements is going to be much longer, and will likely include big concept, general things like “professionalism” and “originality.”

    Enter the professional designer.

  • http://www.perfectlypetersen.com Jesse Petersen

    Thanks for the props to Gitr Knows WoW. I’m still developing the tweaks for my personal blog, but I’m thrilled with your compilation paying close attention to the evolution of your incredibly versatile theme.

    On to your final question, I still click every single RSS article that catches my eye to see it presented in all of its intended glory. I can’t stand what feeds to to the layout, lack of image/font styles, etc.

  • http://www.hoodgrownonline.com Hoodgrown_Magazine

    Thanks for the recognition. I’m still tweaking mine as well, and after seeing some of these other sites.. I’m fueled with more than a few ideas….

    Thanks for a great theme….

  • http://www.saucast.net Sauce

    Hey! Thanks for the link, and thank you for the excellent theme that you developed for us.

    I’m a musician/designer/programmer that uses blogs and everything 2.0 to promote my music, that’s way i’m so concern about my identity in the web context…

    And interesting subject of discussion that will not end here, I’m sure…

    And again, thank you…

  • http://milo.peety-passion.com milo

    Saucast looks extremely good!

  • http://blog.butterflymedia.ro Chip

    I use Netvibes, too. It’s great to organize feeds in Netvibes.

    See my blog, I have some articles about this: http://blog.butterflymedia.ro/

  • http://www.jokka.net Joakim

    I can see that a couple of the sites above have their catgories under the pages from the mainmenu.. How do you do that?
    Refr: http://www.hoodgrownonline.com and http://www.eksena.net

  • http://www.hoodgrownonline.com Hoodgrown_Magazine

    Joakim,
    I use the following plugin: Angsuman’s Permanent Redirect
    You can download it here: http://blog.taragana.com/

  • http://www.reflexiondujour.com/ Olivier

    Hey!!

    A big great thanks for your WP template!
    I’m using it on my personal blog (a sort of diary), you can see it here:
    http://www.reflexiondujour.com/

    I’ve made some few modifications, to adapt to my own taste… not big changes, but right enough to an something different from the original…

    But still THANK YOU for that great template!!!!

    Olivier,
    a french fan of your work

  • Pingback: Saucast.Net » Blog Archive » Identidad Bloguera

  • http://www.jokka.net Joakim

    Thanks Hoodgrown_Magazine! The plugin worked well for me too :) Only bad thing with it was that i lost the color on the menu button you’re visiting. But I’m gonna live with that :)

  • http://www.majarikanayakan.com Majari Kanayakan

    Hi Darren! Your Mimbo theme is such an inspiration. Anyway we’ve been using it in out online magazine Majari Kanayakan: No.1 Magazine for Indonesian Chemical Engineering Students. We’ve added so many modifications to you theme. These are some of them:
    - Feature Video Section
    - Author Profile Section (click the author name and it will link to the profile page)
    - Article Top Banner in every page (We added a big image in every articles so the whole thing will become more magazine-ish)
    - Author highlighted comments. (Every comments that is written by the author will be highlighted – anyway we have several authors in our magazine)
    - backgrounds and hover effect in the featured articles and lead story column.
    - a nice and highlighted ‘about us’ section in the front-page
    - etc etc etc..

    anyway, check it out http://www.majarikanayakan.com

    Cheers,
    Majari Kanayakan

  • http://www.sewingpatternsandsupplies.com Buy Sewing Supplies

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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