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A NOTE ON BALANCE
I’ve been fairly vocal about my predilection for free WordPress themes in recent weeks. I’ve applauded the up and coming WPShower.com for producing clean and usable templates, and for reviving the ‘share alike’ spirit that WordPress was founded on. But that’s not to suggest that paid theme developers can’t stir up some excitement now and then, or raise the WordPress design bar, far from it. In fact WordPress owes much of its success to premium theme developers, to those dedicated design professionals who have a vested interest in expanding the performance and the appeal of the platform. But whether free or premium, when it comes to designs that change the way we think about WordPress, we are dealing with a select few, a few rare pearls in a sea of similarity.
In order to redress the free vs premium balance on this blog, I’ve decided to review a recently released premium theme that strikes me as a bit of a game changer. The theme is called Shelf, and it was created by the renowned UK designer John Hicks in collaboration with The Theme Foundry. Rather than write a technical account of its feature set, I’ll begin with a quick tour of the theme and then address its form factor, its viability as a Tumblr alternative and some suggested areas for improvement.
BROWSING THE SHELF
Shelf is a horizontal scrolling, multi-media ready, tumblelog theme. It is designed for WordPress and Tumblr, coded in HTML5, and uses hand-crafted graphic icons. Its fluid layout has been built with cross-platform continuity in mind, offering iPhone and iPad users an equally enjoyable navigation experience.
True to tumblelog form, each of the six default content types (text, audio, images, links, video, quotes) is given a unique style and layout. Particular to the WordPress version is the ability to add custom graphics to audio entries.
The top layer navigation supports the latest WordPress menu features and also displays links to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. At the far edges of the nav bar, you’ll notice left and right arrows. These buttons offer an extra means of horizontal scrolling. The theme also supports keyboard scrolling as well as the standard bottom of the page scrollbar.
There are a number of nice playful touches embedded in the theme such as the ‘brick wall’ style comment section for example. Visitors can jot down their thoughts on a ‘memo pad’ and watch their comments appear like post-it notes along side the post.
Under the bonnet, Shelf sports a custom tumblelog categories panel and a quick post section (à la Tumblr) integrated in the WordPress dashboard. This allows for the quick compose-and-go feel that has come to define the microblogging experience.
There is also a dedicated Shelf options page which allows you to add a custom logo, social media connections, Google Analytics tracking code and various other features. To round this segment off, I should point out that installing the theme was very straight forward and can be done via the WordPress admin panel in a couple of clicks. For WordPress newcomers, the Theme Foundry also offers concise documentation.
The fact that very few horizontal WordPress themes exist is an indication of the dubious design territory that Shelf finds itself in here. Most people’s experience of the Web is vertical. This is the legacy of the early Web and its replication of an analogue experience of content – books!
Despite the recent proliferation of multi-column, grid based designs that have helped expand the visual and spatial experience of the Web, horizontal scrolling designs remain a small minority. As such they run the risk of being seen as mere novelties; appealing at first glance, but after sustained use more of a chore than a pleasure. So how does the Shelf theme perform in this challenge?
Surprisingly well I have to say. It has a lot to do with the slick user interface and the fluid coordination of shapes and colors. This makes interaction with the theme seem almost second nature. But there’s something else at work in this theme, something more fundamental. The clue is in the naming of this theme. The shelf is a powerful organisational model, it is the bedrock of data classification and it lies at the heart of western narrative form. When we peruse a shelf in a library or in someone’s home, we move from item to item developing a mental ‘story’ through the sequential data. You can tell a good deal about someone’s character and preferences by a quick glance of their bookshelf. The same is true of the Shelf theme. The conventional tumblelog form factor, the content ‘stream’ or ‘vertical stack’ is not conducive of a post-to-post narrative relationship. The horizontal model allows for an element of ‘dramaturgy’, a degree of intrigue that makes you want to find out more.
As with any WordPress powered blog or website, when all said and done, 99% of its success depends on the quality of content, but we shouldn’t underestimate the potential for a theme to make the content all the more compelling to consume and create. Shelf definitely has that potential.
WORDPRESS OR TUMBLR?
If you’re like me, when you think ‘tumblelog’, you think Tumblr or Posterous, but perhaps the time is ripe for a third option. WordPress has dabbled in tumblelog themes for quite some time, but it’s only with recent advances in its quickblogging interface that WordPress has become a plausible alternative to Tumblr. So what’s there to gain in switching from Tumblr to WordPress? And what’s there to lose?
Let’s take two points from either side. First of all you gain control of your own data. While there’s no question that Tumblr and Posterous have turned microblogging into an art form, they remain private and closed-circuit services, which makes data export and ownership a tricky task. With a wordpress.org installation you control your own data. Secondly, WordPress themes benefit from better SEO, this is particularly true of the Shelf theme whose code is crafted to ensure that it is readable, valid, and clean.
What you lose is the social network aspect of Tumblr; the ability to make new contacts and benefit from the viral potential of being connected to a large scale network of blogs. You also lose some of the fine-tuned API interfaces that Tumblr supports, such as the ability to blog by email, desktop widget and other interfaces. WordPress has its own alternatives, but it’s a dreary case of trial and error in finding ones that work.
Choosing the right microblogging solution is a matter of priorities. For me, data protection and ownership is high up on my agenda. For others, that will be less of a problem. The fact that the Shelf theme does offer a similar streamlined microblogging solution to Tumblr and Posterous sways my vote in favour of WordPress. Let me know what your preference is and why.
SOME HOME IMPROVEMENTS
As with any theme there is always room for improvement, so before wrapping this post up, I want to offer some insight into aspects of the Shelf theme that I believe require further development:
- Search Box: at the time of writing, the Shelf Theme does not support a search box. This together with my next point about archives, makes information retrieval quite a challenge. Given that tumblelogs are conducive to producing large numbers of posts, addressing this omission in the next version update seems all the more critical.
- Archives: archive pages are a WordPress staple and shouldn’t be difficult to achieve with this theme. Perhaps the Tumblr model of an archive grid might be a possibility for this theme, at the very least a dedicated archive page template with multiple filters could work.
- Custom Pages: It would be nice to see some custom templates deployed with future theme version releases. An archive template for example, perhaps a contact form template too. I’d love to see a portfolio gallery template too. Templates are a fairly simple way of opening up the functionality of a WordPress theme and I’ve no doubt Shelf would benefit greatly from a little extra latitude.
- Articles: tumblelogs have never been geared towards essay writing and Shelf is no different. It works best with quickfire posts. If you do post longer articles with this theme, you’ll have to live with the fairly clumsy vertical scrollbar solution. Other horizontal themes deal with this by allowing posts to expand beyond the fold. For me, the main thing is to keep the number of scroll bars in a theme to a minimum.
If the Theme Foundry team comes up with solutions for better content filtering, this theme will be pretty much unbeatable in its league.
THE LAST WORD
Now that the initial pang of excitement at discovering and using the Shelf theme has worn off, it’s time to rethink the question: is this a game changing theme? Despite the shortcomings I’ve raised here, and despite the fierce competition from excellent tumbleblog services like Tumblr and Posterous, I think it is.
The clincher for me is without a doubt its ease of use on both the front end and the back. Given the unconventional form factor, usability was always going to be the key to this theme’s success, and Shelf didn’t disappoint. It marks a new era of sideways adventures for WordPress.
The theme certainly won’t be to everyone’s liking, it probably won’t suit serious text bloggers for example, but if you’re looking for a theme to show off a portfolio of work, a collection of media or to post short musings on the wonders of life, then Shelf is your baby!
I’d like to thank Jennifer Boydstun and Drew Strojny at the Theme Foundry for supplying a review copy of their Shelf theme.
As with all the theme reviews on this blog, my interest lies in that tiny group of themes that extend WordPress functionality through design innovation. In short, I’m looking for game changers. If you would like to recommend a theme for review, please get in touch via the contact form and I’ll be happy to consider your work.