Drupal's Designer Future
In the past months I've been doing a lot more graphical design, and it's caused me to think about how it relates to Drupal. This prompted me to write a rather long blog piece with some insights and a call to action. If you are interested in the future of Drupal, please read on.
The trigger was that I noticed that I'm getting less and less motivated to do graphics work for Drupal. It's not that I don't like design... I loved designing and building that LeuvenSpeelt.be site last month for example. But when it comes to Drupal graphics, the personal reward that I feel from doing it doesn't seem proportional to the effort I put in. This includes designing little banners for the Drupal.org spotlight, doing a t-shirt, making ad buttons, doing the association theme and more.
The most recent big example was the Garland theme. When Stefan Nagtegaal showed a work-in-progress version of his 'Themetastic' theme (as it was then called) in September, I was instantly charmed and knew that this was our new default theme in the making and said so clearly.
Many others were not convinced though and hammered on details, even though the basic design for the theme was rock solid. Some were not convinced of the theme's potential, or simply didn't see that we needed a theme that was graphically smashing rather than a good base to develop on.
At that point, I essentially said "screw the community, this is going to be our default theme" and started refining the theme so it was perfect for core. This took several weeks.
Until then, the rest of the community put its eggs in the wrong baskets and got a lot of useless design-by-committee done. These designs, which were in my opinion mediocre at best, were being pushed for inclusion. This may sound a bit harsh, but I honestly believe that if the most popular candidate theme, Deliciously Zen, had become the new default core theme, we'd have been ridiculed for still not 'getting' design after 6 years and Drupal 5 would not have been such a big release. Just like 4.7, most people would not stick to Drupal long enough to discover how good it is.
Now, when the Garland theme was finally done, everyone suddenly changed their opinion and congratulated the community on its excellent work. I have to admit this hit a nerve, especially after I'd been spending countless days and nights the two weeks before fixing annoying IE rendering bugs, redoing the CSS layout and adding a whole new layer of Glitz und Glanz to Drupal core.
Only three people did serious work on what became the Garland theme: Stefan Nagtegaal did the original design from scratch and worked with Adrian Rossouw to come up with a proof-of-concept of the recolorable theme. I wrote the color picker, improved the theme and coded what became the color.module based on Adrian's stuff.
Only a handful of people helped with testing of the theme during its development and only after the main theme was finished — most of the bugs were in the recoloring mechanism. How can such a vital piece of Drupal 5 have only have 3 serious contributors, when the whole release had almost 500 people submitting patches?
To me, this shows that we have a problem in the Drupal community, or rather a knowledge void. Not enough Drupal people are savvy enough about theming and design to help out with even small tasks (like a banner) or even give quality tips and feedback on other work. The result is that theming and design receives little attention. Most contributed themes and sites could look a lot better, if they just themed it some more. And getting patches into core that give the defaults a little more oomph is tough, as they are often considered to be useless embellishments.
Still, ever since Drupal started, there has been the recurring cry of doing more to attract great designers to the platform. The overall effects of this have been minimal. However, something similar did happen before.
Before Drupal 4.0 was released, the focus was mainly on features and Drupal was a highly experimental project. After a while, as more people started using it, many users complained that Drupal was too hard or confusing to use. Because of this, 4.0 was the first of many releases that contained significant usability improvements, in this case in the administration area. Many small and large usability features were added. With the menu system and tabs having been added to core by Drupal 4.5, even contributed modules started using the same UI concepts as core. Drupal's UI ended up much more consistent across configurations and it became easier to learn and document. Now with Drupal 5.0, we have undoubtedly produced the most usable release yet.
How did this happen? Over the years, the idea has popped up many times to bring usability experts on board to do a review, and the hope has lived that a usability expert or two will magically pop up in the community and solve all our problems (sound familiar?). Neither has happened so far.
What did happen is that usability became a big priority for the project, and as a result, many people started educating themselves about it. The community quickly identified those in its ranks knowledgable about usability and listened to their advice. Soon, big UI gurus were being quoted on the mailing lists and "-1 isn't usable" became a valid reason to dismiss a feature. Sure, this process took time, but it definitely happened. Plus, the combined usability knowledge and effort of the community, though individually not at expert level, had a much larger effect in the long run than any single expert could have.
The same needs to happen for design. For years now, the Drupal community has been hoping for a group of prodigy designers to magically appear and design a set of jaw dropping themes and UI. They have not shown up. Talking and maintaining a high quality of design across Drupal still often feels like swimming upstream, because most community members don't care much for design unless it is delivered in front of their noses on a silver platter. For many, design is still something to only be enjoyed, not something to be created.
Now, I really want to see this change. For one thing, the shortage of design talent means Drupal is generally perceived to be ugly. It's quite demotivating, because we put a lot of time into it. Unfortunately people illogically, but consistently, assume a relation between how something looks and how good it is built. With Drupal 5 we've done a lot to improve this, but we could still do a lot better. Drupal is no OS X (yet).
For another, when only a handful people are always doing the same jobs, the passion tends to slip out and the challenge becomes a chore. I honestly have no ideas left for a spotlight banner at the moment. That's why the scalability banner is so mind-numbingly boring, though I made plenty of cool ones before.
This is also why I'm holding that OSCMS talk about design this month: I want more people to realize that if your site and/or module is ugly, people aren't going to like it or use it. It's as simple as that. If you mess up something as basic as text formatting, your message simply doesn't get through (hello MySpace users). The only way to change that is to put in the effort to make things look clean and nice. Nice products and nice sites tend to cause happy, dedicated and long-term users.
The community not only needs to realize this, but also needs to teach itself the knowledge and skill to do something about it. Drupal has infinite potential, but it only goes where the community takes it. If the majority remains allergic to design and graphics, very little will change and only at a glacial pace.