Putting All Your CMS Needs In One Basket

My introduction to the CMS came in 2000. I had been building websites by hand for several years at that point and was getting quite frustrated with the constant maintenance required by the client once the project was “complete”. I was visiting my friend, and colleague, Doug Ward, and talk, as it normally did, turned towards the web. My frustration became a bit obvious as the conversation proceeded, and Doug showed me a system he set up for a recent client of his. That afternoon in his studio is solely responsible for me not giving up on the web almost a decade ago.

That day I was introduced to my first ever CMS, Greymatter (and is apparently still available). By today’s standards it was hardly an impressive system, with it’s lack of a database structure and need to rebuild a bunch of files on each publish, but at the time, it opened up completely new possibilities. With a bit of forethought and an extra couple hours of code work it was possible to fully realize the meaning of "this project is now complete". At the time, I did not understand the entire philosophy of letting an entire application on your website generate all of your pages, so my use of Greymatter was a bick hackneyed, but it worked wonderfully. I had the system output a series of .txt files which I then pulled into my html files using Apache includes. It was rudimentary, but freed up quite a bit of my time and was the first baby step towards my understanding of managing content on the web.

This worked fine for several years, but eventually I began building sites that were more complicated and my client’s needed more control over a wider array of content. This approach wouldn’t work any longer (though I kept Greymatter in my back pocket and used it as recently as 2005). This was also about the same time that Wordpress and Moveable Type were gaining steam amongst the web creation community. Wanting to learn more about them, I dove head first into their online documentation, and set about creating the same test blog with each one. It was an eye opening experience, and a leap of faith, to allow a pre-created system generate your entire site through the use of templates, but I learned quite a bit in the process. In the end, I found it was easier for me to work with Wordpress and that became my new CMS of choice for the next few years.

However, Wordpress brought a whole new set of issues with it. With Wordpress I always felt like I was fighting against the system in place to make it do what I wanted it to do, rather than having the system in place to allow me to execute my vision. It’s a minor distinction, but an all too frustrating one. My design career was based in print just as much as it was on the web, which allowed me a unique perspective. I understood the limitations inherit on the web at the time, but within those limitations, I still expected to have the precision that was capable. I found that precision increasingly difficult within the structure Wordpress seemed to impose. This frustration steadily grew again until it eclipsed that same frustration I felt back at Doug’s place in 2000. By 2007 I was ready to call it quits on the web again.

Then I met Dave Bias. We were both looking to combine efforts with like-minded designers, and grabbed a bite to eat one night to talk about things. My concern was that most of the work he was doing was on the web, which I had recently moved away from. We talked a bit and he introduced me to the CMS he was using to build his clients’ sites, Textpattern. He pointed me to the book Textpattern Solutions and sent me some links to find out more about the system. I got the book the next day and two weeks later I was hooked. TXP became my CMS of choice.

I instantly fell in love with the (relatively) plain language XML based templating system. That, combined with the building block nature of template creation afforded me the control I felt was lacking with Wordpress. Textpattern was that system I had been searching for, one that was a powerful tool in website creation, rather than a speed bump. In addition to the flexibility I had been searching years for, I found it an extremely speedy environment to work in, building this very site in just 2 days of coding (the first site I built using TXP) [Note - the current version of this website is now built upon Middleman].

The only area I see that Wordpress has a leg up on Textpattern is in the development community. Wordpress, being the industry standard at this point, is where the developers have flocked to. However, that’s not a knock on the Textpattern community at all, as that community, while smaller, has created just as many useful plugins to extend the system. In Operating System terms, Wordpress is to Windows as Textpattern is to OS X. Sure, there are more plugins (applications) available for WP, but any of the useful ones have a TXP counterpart.

Over the past two years I’ve been happily bringing web projects into the studio, knowing that Textpattern would make a large percentage of the effort in building the site go towards the design goals rather than wasted on troubleshooting and working around the system. With the barriers in the CMS implementation removed I’ve found that we’ve been able to knock out the best work we’ve done on the web, able to concentrate more strongly on the actual design of the site, with no worries of what will be needed to execute that design. “It’s being built in TXP, of course we can do it,” became a regular mantra.

While I have no urge to stray from TXP anytime soon, I’m well aware of how the CMS world works. Systems come and go, development communities migrate, and clients have their own preferences. To leave all your CMS needs to just one system is a bad place to be, and that’s where I have always been. Expression Engine is extremely intriguing to me, as it seems to follow a very similar site creation philosophy as TXP. Sooner, rather than later, I will create a test site using Expression Engine to add it to the arsenal. Wordpress has recently upgraded (again) and thanks to an older client site, I’ve been doing some poking around. I’m impressed with some changes that they have made, and while the same barriers that drove me away seem to still be in place, the studio has actually lost work because we’ve tried to steer potential clients away from WP. I also haven’t looked at Moveable Type in years (since the 2.X days if I recall). What improvements have been made there to keep up with the rest?

When all is said and done, favorites are great, but favorite should not lead to exclusivity. Each and every system, whether it’s a content management system or a public transit system, has it’s own sets of pros and cons. Others you work with will have their own favorites. And no one has ever lost work from too much working knowledge. One of my goals for the next year is to get out of the rut of exclusivity. While I will still recommend TXP as my preferred option, I won’t be wary of clients that require Wordpress, and will know that Expression Engine or Drupal would be more appropriate for certain projects. That way, when the time comes, adaptation will simply mean reaching for a different .zip archive come installation time.