The Formula for an Amazing Drupal Website

Posted: November 25, 2012 under Drupal

There is a lot that goes into creating a great website. Some of us are good at one or two of these things, others are strictly specialists and some of you reading this are just getting started. After working for over 12 years designing and building websites, I still haven't mastered all the skills needed to turn a website truly golden, as it seems the learning never really ends. However, I have got hold of the basic formula. 

Over time, I have also come to understand that you can't do it all by yourself. If you try, you will most often end up doing something you have little aptitude for, don't enjoy and won't be able to successfully accomplish. But it's important to have the recipe for success so that you'll know where to turn for help. Here then, is the formula for a great Drupal website - or any website for that matter.

Strong Technical Foundation

This is all about having a great content management system, in my opinion. Can you have a great website without a CMS? Maybe, but in most cases I don't think so. The contemporary web is driven increasingly by quality content and so an excellent CMS is the critical foundation.

If you're reading this, I probably don't have to sell you on Drupal. In my humble opinion it far surpasses its two primary competitors, WordPress and Joomla. Providing this strong technical foundation is the purview of developers, those who excel at getting all the pieces of a complex CMS working together in harmony.

But having a strong technical foundation goes beyond simply downloading Drupal core and ticking off the box as mission accomplished. Drupal is a framework for creating a content management system rather than a finished CMS. 

If you're a developer, you might scoff at this and say that's how you've been using it for years, no fancy stuff needed. But if you hand over a base Drupal install to your average content contributor, they will howl in pain. Too many choices! No rich text editor! Ahhhh!! 

No, Drupal needs a skilled hand to step in and build a proper CMS. This is the task of site building and it often gets less respect than it deserves because, after all, anyone can download some modules, right?

Well, yes. But I made a complete mess of my first couple sites because I didn't choose my modules wisely. It takes experience to know the quirks and appropriate usage of various modules, and with so many choices of modules that have similar functionality, it's important to know which one is best. Figure that out, and you have your strong technical foundation and required site functionality.

Good Design

So what constitutes good design? That's the subject for a book rather than a section of a blog post, but here are a couple key questions to ask when discussing a web design:

  1. Does the design properly represent the personality of you or your organization? Switch "personality" for "brand" if you're a marketing type.
  2. Does the design help solve your users' problems? A CMS helps you solve your problems, your website should help your users solve theirs. 

These are just two quick points, but they are sometimes not so easy to determine, which is why a guy like me has a job. But a Drupal theme designer has to have a bucket of skills that goes beyond web design. You have to have a touch of developer, a whole lot of site builder, a dash of marketer, as well as that designer living inside you.

Before I leave it at this, there is another important consideration that is part design work, part site building and that's the choice of base theme. Now I realize some shops don't use base themes, but I think in most cases you should. And the base theme you choose will affect the work of the theme designer and the choices he or she makes.

You see, design deals with managing constraints. You can't have everything and if you somehow actually can, you should limit things intentionally. Too many choices make people unhappy. It's true! You can look it up if you don't want to take my word for it. Understand then that every base theme developer has made choices and those act as constraints that the designer working with that base has to accommodate. So it can be a critical choice.

I'm a big fan of Omega base theme and I recently updated my installation profile for those that want to take it for a test drive. However, other base themes for Drupal are also excellent, including AdaptiveTheme and Zen.

Great Content

Content is easily the most difficult part of making a great website, in my opinion. It's particularly difficult for smaller organizations to manage. If you have the budget, a copywriter will save your sanity. If not, I always point folks to Copyblogger as an excellent starting place.

Maybe not all of the tips there will work for you, but Brian Clark, the guy behind the site, is generous about promoting the work of others and by following his site you'll be introduced to a treasure trove of great advice on writing and content creation.

However, there is more to the content puzzle that simply creating it. It's also got to be managed. This is where content strategy comes in. It's a new field that has popped up in recent years and is becoming increasingly important and undeniably useful.

I did a three part overview of Erin Kissane's book, The Elements of Content Strategy a little over a year ago, but if you just want to quickly read something that will help you crank out better stuff, check out this excerpt from her book.  Kristina Halvorson and Karen McGrane are also very influential and filled with wise advice.

If you're lost with regard to content, just follow the advice of those I listed above and your site content will improve by leaps and bounds.

A Final Piece

The proper title of this section should be "marketing", but lots of people have a visceral, negative reaction to the word. For many, it's synonymous with being a bullshitter. While I sympathize with those of you that feel this way, it's holding you back. Fortunately, there is loads of good advice out there on how to better market your site without giving yourself (and others) the creeps. 

I'd start with the brief post, How NOT to Be a Marketing Douchebag. Maybe check out the rest of that site. Copyblogger will also be a huge help for you and once you're ready to step beyond the basics, SEOMoz is awesome.

Another guy that I really like and respect is Seth Godin. Sign up for his posts, you won't regret it. They're published daily, usually very short, but also very wise.

Now, some of you may be wondering why you need marketing to have an awesome site. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Who cares! And that will be true of your site as well. It may totally kick ass, but if no one knows about it, it doesn't matter.

About the Author

John Hannah

I’m John Hannah, a front end developer at Lullabot . When I'm not building websites, I travel as much as possible and enjoy hanging out with my wonderful family. My favorite place to spend my coffee breaks is Twitter, so please feel free to connect with me there.