DrupalCon Denver 2012

DrupalCon Denver LogoBack in March, I spent a few days in Denver at DrupalCon, catching up on the latest news from the community of developers and designers who use the Drupal content management system. It would be pointless to try to summarize the conference, but here are my top three take-aways. (Note that videos and slides from the sessions discussed below are available from the DrupalCon site; just follow the links in the posts to view them).

Responsive Design. The concept of responsive web design is only a few years old, but it's clearly taken hold. As Ethan Marcott suggests in his often-cited article, the explosive growth of mobile devices means that old assumptions about web design need to be revised. In many situations, it no longer makes sense to design a site for view on a desktop monitor or a laptop, only to re-tool it (or build an entirely separate modile-dedicated site) for users of mobile devices.

As Kayla Knight explains in "Responsive Web Design: What It Is and How to Use It," a responsive design approach suggests that a site should be built from the beginning with a multiplicity of devices in mind: 

Responsive Web design is the approach that suggests that design and development should respond to the user’s behavior and environment based on screen size, platform and orientation. The practice consists of a mix of flexible grids and layouts, images and an intelligent use of CSS media queries. As the user switches from their laptop to iPad, the website should automatically switch to accommodate for resolution, image size and scripting abilities. In other words, the website should have the technology to automatically respond to the user’s preferences. This would eliminate the need for a different design and development phase for each new gadget on the market.

London-based designer Lewis Nyman outlined a compelling approach to responsive web design: rather than starting with the high resolution, high-powered personal computer in mind, design your site for the most basic device first. Nyman's minimalist motto is "load only what is going to be used." This means that responsive sites shouldn't load all the available content and then hide some of it for smaller screens. Instead, sites should provide some content and then load more if media queries detect that the user's device has a higher screen resolution or a faster connection than what is required to run the site's most basic elements. On the practice side, Jake Strawn, developer of the responsive Omega Theme, explained his methods for implementing responsive, mobile-first themes in Drupal.

Installation Profiles and Features. Installation profiles (or distributions) bundle together modules that expand on the basic Drupal installation package, providing expanded functionality out of the box. They allow you to perform a fresh install of Drupal with many modules (and often themes) pre-loaded. This is especially helpful if your use-case for Drupal is more specific than just a vanilla, public-facing website. Project managers can install Open Atrium to set up a collaborative intranet, colleges and universities can install Open Scholar to build sites customized for academic departments and faculty pages, and journalists can install Open Publish to establish an online publishing platform.  

At the conference, I was introduced to Panopoly, an installation profile that I now use as my base installation whenever I'm setting up a non-specialized site. Panopoly provides a variety of responsive layouts to choose from, drag and drop customization of page layouts, a Wordpress-style WYSIWG (a big plus if you're working with clients who are intimidated by Drupal and already familiar with Wordpress), and a great administrative interface (a well-ordered and easily searchable modules administration page, for example).

Anyone who has worked with Drupal for very long has a set of favorite modules and configuration settings that they use nearly every time they deploy a new site. There are also combinations of modules, settings, views, webforms, and the like that might be useful to transfer from one existing Drupal site to another: a membership directory, for example, or a list of podcast episodes, or a submission webform. The Features module allows you to bundle up these settings, modules, and all their dependencies and export them as a new, stand-alone module. You can then upload and install that Features module on another site just like any other module. By creating Features modules, you can save yourself hours repeating work you've already done. You can also, of course, more easily share your work with others. In his presentation, "Rapid Drupal Devlopment with Drush and Drush Make," Matthew Connerton explains how to get the most out of Features. (Although the title of the session refers to Drush, the popular command-line shell for Drupal, you don't need Drush to take advantage of features. However, if you're running more than one Drupal site and aren't already using Drush, it's probably time to install it---it will save you hours performing routine updates.)

Managing Content with Workbench. Sites with multiple contributors, different sections, and levels of editorial approval can get hard to manage; just ask Dick Olsson, Lead Drupal Developer for Al Jazeera. In his talk, "How to Build a Scalable Platform for Today's Publishers," Olsson explains how to set up an editorial workflow that meets the requirements of today’s online publishers. One of the key tools for managing a complex workflow is the workbench module. Workbench provides simplified user interface for users who only have to work with content, the ability to control who has access to edit any content based on an organization's structure, and a customizable editorial workflow.

If you're new to Drupal and all this seems a little intimidating or you're inspired to learn more, I recommend getting started with one of the many Drupal trainings available on lynda.com.

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