This week you'll get to know Anthony Olsen from Melbourne, Australia.
Anthony is an active Joomla developer and designer with a minimalist style. You might know him as the founder of the successful template and extensions company Joomla Bamboo. He's also an active voice in the Joomla community. Both on Twitter, as a blogger and lately as a contributor to the Joomla Community Magazine, where he's the Design Studio editor.
Hey Anthony, please tell the readers a little about yourself - where you're from and where you spend your time.
I am based in Melbourne, Australia. I basically work from home in a small office, but I am in the process of moving to a design studio at a local artist/creative studio that is positioned in some beautiful gardens next to the Yarra River in the Abbotsford convent.
The Joomla Bamboo team is pretty small. It's really just me plus one other developer (Jason is also based in Melbourne) plus a smattering of dedicated support crew that is spread over the globe - so like a lot of other tech/web/IT developers I've been lucky enough to be able to work from home and enjoy the freedoms and chaos that comes with that.
At the start of this year we moved from quite a large house which was large enough for me to run the office from without much 'help' from the family, but the new house doesn't quite give me enough escape from the chaos of having three children under five, under my feet, while I work, so I have decided that I need to leave the house to go to work. So it's going to be an interesting experiment in terms of productivity and also in terms of creating a better work life balance.
How did you first get started using Joomla!?
I'm actually a trained Acupuncturist and as a part of setting up my practice and my business around four years ago I decided to investigate the different content management systems that were available as one click installs on my $9 a month shared server. I guess the rest is really a bit of a common story - I fell in love with how easy it was to control the content within Joomla and couldn't believe how powerful the system was.
In the past I've experimented with HTML websites and I really enjoyed the creative process in designing and coding them. But when I started to delve into the infinitely more complex Joomla templating system, it was like I'd chosen the ultimate jigsaw puzzle and I really relished (and still do relish) the challenge of trying to figure it out.
My initial templating attempts weren't really that much to write home about, but after a while I started to get a feel for it and I decided to start Joomla Bamboo. The acupuncture website never got made but funnily enough it still on my to do list - I guess I'll get to it one day.
Any thoughts on Joomla! strengths and weaknesses?
As you know Joomla is incredibly powerful and you can use it to create just about any type of website. However I think in some cases that is actually one of its biggest weaknesses. I think the challenge is to know what not to put on the site rather than try to figure out what to put on the site. The judicious use of Joomla modules and extensions really comes through spending time working with the CMS and letting your knowledge of what it can do, and how it does it, mature.
I think there are some key markers that point out which CMS a particular websites uses and you can often tell just by looking at a site, what the CMS underneath it is. I think the software used to create a website really shouldn't determine what the website looks like. I also believe one of the biggest challenges for developers is to create a visually unique website that is not held by the conventions of the CMS itself. The MVC templating in Joomla really helps developers to achieve this, in my opinion.
What were your expectations when starting Joomla Bamboo?
The template club scene has been quite crowded for some time.
The market for Joomla templates is certainly much more diverse and more densely populated than when I started towards the end of 2006. To be honest, when I started the club I really wasn't sure where it would end up, and it was more about me following a creative urge rather than starting out with a particular business plan.
The business itself has grown somewhat organically over the last few years and I've tried to implement an attitude of solid and sustainable growth. I think it would be pretty hard to start a club these days given that the market is so heavily populated, but it's certainly not out of the question. In fact, because the market is so big, I think you could really just target a specific niche and be successful and have fun while doing it.
I am still really excited by the feedback that we get for our designs and it's a real buzz to be able to create something here on my computer screen, get almost instant feedback from a whole range of different people, and then see that same design being used on people's personal and business websites. So I guess as a basic expectation my aim was to create designs that people would like, and then use on their site.
Some template clubs seem to think "more is better" and throw in a huge number of module positions and features in their templates. What's your view on this?
Well, I think in a lot of cases the demo site that the various clubs put together is not actually what the developers themselves consider to be a real world scenario. There is a constant tension between trying to display what the template can do versus a particular aesthetic. In a lot of cases I think that if you don't feature something on the front page of the new design, then potential users will miss it, so there can be a bit of a push to capture the visitors attention on the very first page load.
I try to create a good balance between showing off what the template can actually do and also creating what might be considered a real world scenario for that particular template, but I certainly understand the tension and the challenge of putting a demo site together.
In your opinion, what makes a good Joomla template?
I think a good Joomla template is really one that suits the needs of the end-user or fits the the purpose of the website. Obviously it has to be fast loading, optimized for search engines, coded well and look good but what that looks like as an end result is really going to depend on the type of website that the template is for. Ideally the template should be easy to change and you shouldn't be locked into fixed widths or layout options. Sometimes you need to fix the layout to cater for a specific design choice but in general I think flexibility is better for the end user.
You recently launched your Zen Grid framework. Can you tell us what that's all about?
The Zen Grid framework is basically a scaffold with a whole range of functionality that we use to create our templates. It came out of really wanting to streamline our development process from month to month, and to be able to have a mature and feature rich starting point that supports all of the core features that we normally include in a template release. We found that we were repeating the same steps over and over again from month to month and so the framework was a way for us to consolidate a lot of that work.
There has been a bit of debate on the various blogs about the benefits of templating frameworks and I think that while they are great, they are not necessarily the best solution for all developers. I guess the advantage of developing your own skeleton template is that its suited to your own particular code and design needs, and you have full control over it, while if you start to use a framework you surrender that control but gain access to the hundreds (and maybe thousands) of hours that the developer have put into it.
The Zen Grid Framework is really designed to be the best of both worlds. I want to make it as flexible and as easy as possible for developers to use without overwhelming them with features or creating a stack of functionality that they will never use. The CSS grid that sits underneath the HTML is really very easy to understand and I think that the framework strikes the right balance between being lightweight and feature rich.
I think one of the big deciding factors of whether to use a framework or not is who will end up using the template. If you are developing for an end user then sometimes the user interface that the frameworks have can help to cut down on your own support time in terms of teaching the user how to actually use the template. At the same time though it must also be said that the more options you give a client then the more chance they have to mess up your work up :)
You regularly blog about "music to design to". I gather you're a music fan?
I used to make electronic music and create soundtracks for theater during the mid to late 90s. I haven't really made any music for quite a few years now but I'm always listening to music when I code or design and that's basically the inspiration for the music to design to series.
As you said, you're the father of three young children. How does that impact how you work?
Well, that's a good question. Just this week I moved out to a new shared office space after five years of working from home. it has been pretty amazing working at home and being instantly available for my girls and also to be able to share the load in terms of direct day-to-day parenting. We moved to a smaller house at the start of this year as I mentioned earlier and there is considerably less space for me to work and so it's been quite difficult dealing with the noise that three little people can generate. But it's going to quite interesting to see what happens in terms my productivity when I move to the new office - I'm sure Ill be able to get a lot more done but it's going to mean a pretty major shift in routine for the whole family.
You have your own online-based company. Do you feel you are location independent because of this?
That is absolutely one of the benefits of running your own online business and the fact is that you can maintain a good working business while you move about. Of course it helps to have support people around you, but I've been able to travel to the UK and also make regular trips to the beach and other places in Australia and still maintain the daily running of the business. I guess the biggest factor is that in Australia we don't necessarily have the best Internet access out in the country, so sometimes it's a little bit hit and miss when it comes to staying connected.
What else do you do - apart from being a Joomla addict?
As I mentioned before I am also a trained acupuncturist and have been running a small home practice for the last five years. That has scaled down considerably as the web work has grown but I continue to treat a small number of patients and also attend conferences and workshops for Chinese medicine and transpersonal psychology.
But when I'm not doing that, or doing the web work. or looking after my kids, I love to surf. We live about an hour and a half from Bells Beach - which you may have heard of - it is a pretty amazing stretch of coastline. Unfortunately, I don't get out to the beach as often as I would like but the will is certainly there.
Thanks for your time, Anthony, and good luck with Joomla Bamboo!