Good. Evil. Bratwurst.

On the (F)utility of pre-built CMS’s

Posted on by arlen

My two most recent contracts have been triggering the reflective urge in me. I’ve been a user of Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal, as has been noted in these electrons before. But I’ve never been entirely satisfied with them.

I can go down a long list of little things that annoy me about each one of them, but the root cause for almost all of it is they’re just too complicated.

Drupal makes it too hard to manage itself, same with Joomla. Joomla’s insistence that everything should depend on pre-built menus is both absurd and limiting. I know what I want the site to look like, and the templating systems in each one of them makes it difficult, sometimes impossible.

In short, they get in my way. That has never been more clear to me than when I started working on one of my long-term pro bono projects for a possible future World Fantasy Convention.

I decided that project should be a learning project for myself as well, so I vowed to do the whole thing in Rails, top to bottom, with javascript additions as a “proof of concept” for a web building philosophy I’ve been noodling with for quite a long time. So I started laying out what should be where, testing new technology here, trying to rejuvenate older ideas there. Rails made it easy for me to put together some new ways, find out whether things I’ve always wondered about would actually work (some did, some didn’t).

And I discovered something: Freedom. I could take the design where I wanted it to go, where it wanted to go. I could answer some “what if” questions right now. I didn’t have to abandon promising design directions simply because they hadn’t been thought of or implemented correctly by a team of developers I had no contact with and little influence over. I didn’t have to compromise just because Drupal/Joomla/WordPress didn’t like it.

And as the light dawned on me, suddenly new ideas for old sites came flooding in. I finally figured out how to solve some design issues I had been struggling with for years. I feel reinvigorated, almost intoxicated. I haven’t felt this way since I first discovered Eric Meyer’s ComplexSpiral demo. Once again my world has shifted; cats and dogs are living together in perfect harmony.
Pre-built CMS’s have their place. But I wonder. I remember why Doc Savage refused to carry a gun (because once you start, you begin to depend upon it, rather than yourself, and you then become diminished without one) and I think they have the same effect. They diminish you as a designer, as a developer. You close doors simply because the development team closes them for you.

Recently Jason Santa Maria laid down a challenge that none of these are able to pick up, at the moment. And that bothers me, because he’s right, and they’re wrong. I’m about to launch a new project, and I’m going to test out how hard it would be to answer that challenge without fighting the CMS’s artificially imposed constraints. I know how hard it will be inside the CMS prisons.

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August 2008
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