I've been using Twitterfall to track a number of topics lately, including Drupal, and I've noticed a couple of widely held beliefs. One is that Drupal is hard to install and the other is that Drupal themes suck.
The first complaint I'm going to generally dismiss with "you forgot to read the instructions." System requirements are there for a reason, and if you meet them and follow the directions, installing Drupal takes about two minutes. Customizing it will take as much time as you choose to spend.
The second complaint I'm going to use as an excuse to write a long-promised but brief book review, along with some thoughts about the state of visual presentation in the world of Drupal websites.
Drupal doesn't impose any particular "look" on a website, regardless of what you may have heard. The Drupal pattern is to provide a default, then allow an override. This approach applies to pretty much everything, opening the door to complete customization, and this is at least as true of the presentation layer as anywhere else in the system.
At work we've been using Drupal to build websites for our newspapers and radio stations, so I'm pretty well acquainted with its strengths and weaknesses. I don't think you can claim http://www.cjonline.com/, which relaunched last week, looks anything like a blog. Or http://www.pinkspage.com/, http://teamsugar.com/, http://www.skirt.com/, http://www.theonion.com/ or any of hundreds of other examples I could cite.
And yet "Drupal themes suck" has an element of truth to it. The universe of free, downloadable themes for Drupal is not very big, and some of the themes are just plain awful.
Why is that? I think there are several powerful reasons:
- Drupal is a wonderful playground for code developers. By and large, code developers are bad graphic designers. It's almost as if loving beautiful code structure keeps you from loving beautiful visual design. So the Drupal development community, huge and diverse though it may be, is not fertile ground.
- A pro-am divide. There are many great website designs implemented in Drupal -- for high-end, paying customers. The resulting professionally developed themes are part of the visual branding of the customers' products. They will not be released. Many of the released themes come instead from people who are teaching themselves to write CSS on the fly, and tinkering with their own blog design to do it. The result is predictable.
- Themes don't benefit from contributions like modules do.
- Drupal theming is scary.
That last point brings me to the book: Drupal 6 Themes: Create new themes for your Drupal 6 site with clean layout and powerful CSS styling, by Rick Shreves (Packt Publishing).
I generally don't turn to books to help me figure out computer problems; there are lots of Web resources. In the case of Drupal theming, I've been able to rely on Web documentation.
But I have an advantage that a lot of designers don't have: I'm fairly adept at PHP and not at all afraid to dive into the deep end of the pool.
As Drupal's theme system has grown more sophisticated, the Drupal documentation team has struggled to tell its story. A major rewrite of both the theme system and the theme guide for Drupal 6 inadvertently made it all harder for designers, because the documentation is aimed more at the journeyman Drupal developer than at a guy whose strengths are outside the world of coding.
Drupal 6 Themes takes a designer's point of view and walks -- very slowly, at first -- through the sometimes bewildering process through which Drupal transforms database content into presentations. It explains the modularity of the system, the way optional microtemplates can override the presentation of just about everything.
This isn't code-free by any means; if you intend to go down this road, be prepared with a solid understanding of contemporary HTML and CSS. And, because the book concentrates on the PHPTemplate engine, you should know at least enough PHP to understand conditional statements (if-then-else) and how to print $variables.
You'll also need to understand that Drupal theming is a bit like skiing. If you fight the mountain, it will win.
But if you have what it takes to make it through the book, for less than $40 and a bunch of your time you'll have positioned yourself to do something about that "Drupal themes suck" problem. And given the growing demand for competent Drupal site designers and themers, you'll have broadened your own career options. Not a bad thing to do in this economy.