Is Drupal a desginers' nightmare or it's just not ready for them yet?

[Header image taken from Barnoz]

Recently, there has been a lot of debate in the Drupal community surrounding the questions of "Is Drupal for developers only?" and "How we can get more designers involved?". It's a passionate subject for many who want to see further growth in the community and wider acceptance from both developers and designers to the end-users.

It seems everyone has their own personal opinions and perspective on the current situation and what can be done about it. Whether we agree with each other or not, it's a healthy discussion with a lot of good ideas being thrown around. So here's my take based on my own experience of using not only Drupal but developing on few other open source CMS in the past.

Before i go on, here are couple of articles that i think is a great place to recap on what the community feels: What shall we do about Themes? and Beautiful Drupal - growing the designer community and its impact.

Another crucial point i think hasn't really been addressed is - which designers are we referring to? the Graphic Designer or the Web Designer? There is a distinction between the two. As a Web Designer they should be well equipped knowing a graphic editing tool (ie, Photoshop), HTML and CSS. Probably not so much PHP but at least the basics and perhaps a development tool or two. With these skills, it is gernally enough to start creating your own Drupal theme. Whereas Graphic Designer can be forgiving not to know any coding as their main role would have been in print work and design. It's true that's a bit of a generalisation as it's becoming a blur line between the two roles these days but that is the general conception. In this article when i mention designers, it's the web designers that i am referring to.

The possible problems:

Much of the arguments pinpoints CVS as being the main barrier for designers and that theming should be made easier. As much as i agree with these points, i also think they aren't the main issues. Sure theming is a bit difficult but getting a basic Drupal theme together isn't all that hard. It only becomes difficult when you begin to start really customising your site by overriding many form elements or having different layouts depending on the sections of website but the same can be said about other CMS (ie, Wordpress or Joomla). In fact, this is Drupal's strength and is somewhat of a limitation in other CMS.

No matter how you look at it, there are overlaps between functionality and design. Designers need to first learn to use Drupal before they can start the theming stage. I guess this applies to any new CMS they want to use. I don't mean they have to learn module development (that's the developer role) but rather, administering Drupal so they can get to know how the overall system interacts with the theming layer. This is possibly where some of the problem lies. Drupal is a very flexible and powerful CMS but the trade-off with the power at your fingers tips is that it can take time to learn an intricate CMS. This is something we tend to overlook when we already know Drupal well. Like any software we learn to use, once 'you get it', it becomes second nature and we tend to take it for granted and easily dismissed that newbies are struggling like we once did.

Most designers at this point probably don't want to learn a new CMS if it takes up too much time. That is perfectly a good reason, designers main passion will be in design, not spending hours on end figuring out yet another CMS before theming it. Why does Wordpress works well for designers? because it's easy and intuitive. I remember when i first used Wordpress, i never had to refer to any documentations just to get started on administering a site so i quickly jump into learning about theming a Wordpress site. Wordpress is simple and isn't as feautured rich as Drupal is so we can't really compare the two when it comes to steep learning curve.

A minor point (or perhaps a bigger issue to designers) about the site is that - let's face it and not kid ourselves, it's not exactly a pretty site to look at. Call me shallow if you will for judging the site on it's appearance and not it's usefulness but it does give an impression of not being too bothered about design at all. So how will designers feel if that is their passion?

Possible solutions and major changes to come

I've tried to point out the possible problems above so what can be improved? They already exist, just a matter of time. Here's few points i want to make:

Firstly, some of the changes to Drupal 7 (next major release version) i think have already tackled some major flaws in Drupal usability as a CMS. For a start, more efforts were put into UX design of Drupal 7 making it more user friendly. Thanks to Leisa, Mark and Roy "yoroy" Scholten who have certainly done a remarkable job. Hopefully for newbies (ie designers) they can spend less time getting to know the system and quickly jump into theming.

Secondly, a redesign of the site has been in the making for quite some time now and looks very polished, and more attractive which will sure to get the designer attention once it is launched.

Thirdly, CVS is a pain but as FourKtichens puts it, "CVS isn’t keeping us from making a theme. It’s only preventing us from releasing it on!" and they go on making suggestions how to overcome this hurdle by offering to help. Their article is a must to read.

Lastly, this brings me to why i had used the photo for this article. Many people refer Drupal as bulding blocks like lego and not Playmobil like Joomla! is as described in this picture (No idea about Nooku). Then i agree, because joomla comes preconfigured with sample data loaded (by default but optional). This gives designers something to work on and shape the theme to accommodate it in different variations. Drupal on the other hand does not offer any of this preconfigured system which means you need to built it up bit by bit like putting pieces of lego together. However, it does have profile installation which means you can built a preconfigured site tailored to specific type of site you desired. This way, variation of themes can be quickly built when you know where content goes. I mean, can someone really theme a site without content? Not really and this would have added extra work before the theming stage begins.

Conclusion, i'm confident there really isn't so much to worry about as i believe Drupal as a project is already heading the right direction to double or triple their growth next year. It's just a matter of time once it reaches these milestones and the release of Drupal 7 that designers will start to feel more comfortable and more confident to contribute as a community member.

Drupal as a project have grown considerably so it's going to take some time for changes to happen even though it's already moving at a faster pace.


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Your email address will be kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.