Ben Gillbanks, a WordPress developer, web designer, and sideline online business owner, shares his passion for WordPress theme design, arts and technology. He started programming at age 10 or 11 and later focused on art and computer science. After majoring in Digital Art and Multimedia Computing at university, Gillbanks decided to become a 3D artist for the video game business. He started working at Miniclip.com in 2004 and started a WordPress blog shortly after. His first publicly available theme, Regulus, gained a following and was the first to provide a theme control interface. In 2007, Gillbanks worked with Darren Hoyt on Mimbo Pro, establishing Pro Theme Design. Gillbanks believes this major in digital arts has influenced his professional growth and advises others to follow this path.
WordPress developer, web designer, and sideline online business owner Ben Gillbanks. Ben manages several blogs and websites dedicated to WordPress, as well as the premium WordPress theme portal www.prothemedesign.com. In this interview, Ben talks about how he got into web design, why he likes WordPress, and how he tries to differentiate himself in a saturated field.
Could you briefly introduce yourself to me?
I’ve always had a passion for the arts and creative work. When I was little, my mother wanted me to work for Disney since I was always drawing. Technology has always interested me. It’s been more than 20 years since I first started programming them (in a very basic way) when I was 10 or 11. I knew what I wanted to accomplish as soon as Toy Story came out in cinemas, so I focused on art and computer science throughout my whole academic career.
At the university, I majored in Digital Art and Multimedia Computing, which included instruction in Photoshop as well as Flash, Dreamweaver, HTML, Java, Director, and 3D Studio Max. Over the years, my goals had changed, and I now knew that I wanted to become a 3D artist for the video game business. I designed a game that I eventually sold to a publisher of inexpensive games since I was so passionate about gaming. I started working with Miniclip.com in 2004 and am now the Director of Web Development there.
I started a WordPress blog not long after I started working at Miniclip. Although I had a website for many years, this was the first time I had ever built something using a content management system. Regulus was the name of my first publicly available theme. Matt Mullenweg adopted it and posted it on WordPress.com, where it quickly gained a following. I believe it was the first theme to provide a theme control interface, which was built using free code provided by Ozh. I worked with Darren Hoyt on Mimbo Pro in 2007, a premium variation of the theme that made the magazine layout popular, and as a result, we established Pro Theme Design.
You majored in digital arts at university. How much do you think this has influenced your professional growth, and would you advise others to follow this road or obtain early experience?
College was more about learning how to learn for me than it was about getting a degree or an education, something I only discovered after graduating. The lectures were honestly not that interesting, but the chance to utilize a variety of expensive devices and software was helpful. Being positioned in a creative setting has several benefits. But my understanding has grown significantly since I graduated from college. University is fantastic for controlled learning, but to truly learn something, you need to be pushed, and right now the workplace is the best place to do that.
You have been running the www.prothemedesign.com WordPress theme design website since 2007. What were the toughest problems you had when starting out, and what difficulties do you still face today?
The main challenge at first was theme creation. At the time I worked with Darren Hoyt, the business was so young that there was nobody to copy or learn from. Many of the things we were doing were firsts, such as Darren’s idea to streamline the creation of post thumbnails, which led to the creation of TimThumb. Adii was selling themes from his website, but Woo Themes did not yet exist. Currently, marketing presents the greatest challenge, and it is also my greatest weakness. No matter how many themes you produce, if no one is aware of them, you will not make any money.
What would you do differently if you had to start over now that you’ve acquired more experience?
I think there are two things I would have changed. Creating the account management interface would have taken additional time and work on my part. The place where customers may make their purchases and get access to customized coupons. This invention greatly simplified customer service.
Second, I would have started utilizing SVN a lot earlier. To make updates exceedingly simple and avoid Darren and I unintentionally overwriting each other’s changes when working together, I now maintain all of the themes on SVN for development.
In the congested WordPress themes industry, which is controlled by a number of well-known businesses, how have you managed to separate prothemedesign.com and stand out?
Pro Theme Design is a small business, and now that Darren works for Arc90, it essentially runs on one person. I thus intend to concentrate on authoritative, superior subjects. For me, quality always wins out over quantity. I am really proud of every theme I’ve created and will always strive to deliver the best possible result.
How can prothemedesign.com be advertised to draw in more clients?
You’ve discovered my weak point. I’ve tried using Buy Sell Ads and Adwords in the past to advertise. In return for reviews, I also provide free themes (but I welcome any useful critique!). In the next months, I want to see you more regularly since I have some plans for a few somewhat more imaginative advertising campaigns.
Additionally, you run the social voting platform for WordPress called www.wpvote.com. Why are you so enthused about WordPress? What first attracted you to it?
I selected WordPress because of how user-friendly it is when I first started using it. I tried to install the most well-liked blog software at the time after installing a local copy web server. I tried out a few other platforms, including WordPress, Movable Type, b2, and Textpattern. I stuck with WordPress because it was the only one that could be installed without requiring any unusual setup.
What I like most about WordPress is how adaptable it is. I think you can do almost anything using the extensions and themes systems together.
What core WordPress plugins would you suggest for a fresh installation?
I only really use a few modules. I always install After the Deadline, which checks your grammar and gives you writing tips, and Akismet, which prevents spam.
I have created my own WordPress theme framework called Elemental and have integrated whatever unique functionality I need within the theme, so I don’t need anything else. Because I can work on the theme and then improve all of my websites at once, this considerably streamlines updates. Even though Elemental is one of my Pro Theme Design premium themes, I would still use it even if I didn’t charge for it.
You’ve indicated that you want to concentrate more on growing and expanding social media in 2011. What methods have you come up with so far to achieve this?
I think Facebook and Twitter are the two sites that matter right now for social media marketing. Though they are now the best, this may change in the future. Although I’ve been active on Twitter for a while, I’ve only started participating on Facebook. The Facebook community is growing quickly, despite the fact that I’m still getting used to it. Facebook integration has taken up the majority of the effort on the Pro Theme Design website. On my own website, Binary Moon, I’m going to soon include a function like that.
Do you have any online resources that you would suggest to designers of all expertise levels?
There has already been mention of the one item of advise I would give. Learning how to learn is important. When I was young, the principal of my school would frequently remind us that the mind is like a muscle. It won’t continue to work properly if you don’t utilize it. Therefore, keep developing, practicing, and exercising design. You’ll get better the more you practice.
In terms of tools, I’ve spent the last several years creating a scrapbook of screenshots from websites that inspire me, which I like to go over whenever I get stuck on a project.
Studying design philosophy is something else I would advise. Despite the fact that many individuals are skilled in Photoshop design and that there are many tutorials on the subject, I think that many of the foundations have been lost. The how is now more important than the why. To guarantee that they are acting appropriately and not just because they are employing the newest Photoshop trick to become viral on the Internet, people should spend more time studying about usability and user experience.
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