This blog post is part of WordPress week, our series of articles and interviews focusing on WordPress.
Ben Gillbanks is a WordPress developer, web designer, and part-time Online Entrepreneur. As well as running various WordPress related websites and blogs, Ben also runs the premium WordPress theme site www.prothemedesign.com. In this interview Ben talks about how he got started in web design, what drew him to WordPress and how he tries to stand out in such a busy market place.
Could you provide a bit of information about yourself?
I have always been into art and creative things. When I was little my Mum wanted me to work for someone like Disney, I was always drawing. I’ve been interested in computers for years. I started programming them (in a very basic way) when I was about 10 or 11 years old (over 20 years ago now). When Toy Story came out at the cinema I knew instantly that was what I wanted to do, and so all of my school years were oriented around art, and computing.
At university I studied Digital Art with Multi Media Computing, which covered everything from Photoshop, to Flash, through Dreamweaver, HTML, Java, Director, and 3D Studio Max. Over the years my goals had changed and I had decided I wanted to work in video games as a 3d artist. I was really passionate about gaming and even built a game that I went on to sell to a budget games publisher. In 2004 I started work at Miniclip.com – where I still work as the Director of Web Development.
I started a WordPress blog shortly after starting at work at Miniclip – I’d had a website for years but this was the first time I had created something I had used any sort of cms. My first public theme was called Regulus – Matt Mullenweg picked it up and stuck it on WordPress.com and it became rather popular. To the best of my knowledge it was the first theme to have a theme control panel – which originally was built on some free code from Ozh. In 2007 I partnered with Darren Hoyt on Mimbo Pro – a premium version of the theme that popularized the magazine style – and with that we started Pro Theme Design.
You studied digital arts at University, how much do you feel this has helped you with your career development and would you recommend people follow this path or get hands on experience as early as possible?
I only realised this afterwards but for me university was less about the qualification and the education and more about learning to learn. To be totally honest the lectures weren’t very interesting, but what was good was being given the opportunity to use all sorts of high end hardware and software. There’s a lot that can be said for being placed in a creative environment. However since leaving university I have learnt considerably more. University is great for structured learning, but for true knowledge you need to be challenged, and so far the best place to do that is in a job.
You have been running a WordPress themes website (www.prothemedesign.com) since 2007, what were the biggest issues you faced in getting started and what are the day to day challenges?
Initially the biggest challenge was building the theme. I collaborated with Darren Hoyt and at the time the industry was really young so we had nobody to learn from or copy. Adii was selling themes from his site, but Woo Themes didn’t exist so a lot of the things we were doing were firsts – for instance Darren had the idea to simplify the process of creating post thumbnails and so TimThumb was born. Nowadays the biggest challenge is marketing, that’s definitely my weak point. You can make all the themes you like, but if nobody knows they exist you’re not going to make any money
With what you have learnt over the years, what would you do differently if you were starting out again?
I think there are 2 things I would have done differently. I would have spent a bit more time building the accounts control panel. This is a place where customers can download their purchases and get access to special coupons specifically for them. Creating this made customer support immeasurably easier.
Secondly I would have started using SVN a lot earlier. For development I now store all of the themes on SVN, which makes updates so so easy, and it would have saved me all the times Darren and I overwrote each others changes when working together.
The WordPress themes market is incredibly busy with some big names, how have you tried to differentiate prothemedesign.com and stand out?
Pro Theme Design is a tiny team, in fact now that Darren is working at Arc90 it’s almost a one man show. As such I try to focus on professional, quality themes. For me it’s all about quality over quantity. I will always create the best product I can and I am very proud of all of the themes I have created.
How do you go about promoting prothemedesign.com to attract new customers?
You’ve found my weak spot. In the past I have tried Adwords, and Buy Sell Ads for advertising. I also give away free themes in return for reviews (I really like getting constructive feedback!). I have a few ideas for slightly more creative advertising ideas and hope that you will be seeing more of me in the coming months.
You also run the WordPress focused social voting site www.wpvote.com, what attracted you to WordPress in the first place and why are you so passionate about it?
When I started using WordPress I picked it based upon the ease of use. I had installed a local copy web server and tried installing a bunch of the most popular blog programs of the time. I tried WordPress, Movable Type, b2, Textpattern, and a couple of others. WordPress was the only one that would install without messing around with weird setups and so that’s the one I stuck with.
The thing I like best about WordPress is the flexibility of the software. With a combination of the themes and plugins systems I think you can do almost anything you want.
What are the essential plug-ins for any new WordPress installation you would recommend?
I actually don’t use many plugins. The ones I always install are a caching plugin of some sort – I like both W3 Total Cache and WP Super Cache – After the Deadline, which is a plugin that analyzes your grammar and helps you to improve your writing, and Akismet for blocking the spammers.
The reason I don’t use anything more that this is that I have written my own WordPress theme framework, called Elemental, and any custom functionality that I wanted to do I built into the theme. This makes updates a lot easier as I can work on the theme and then improve all of my websites at once. Elemental is one of my premium themes on Pro Theme Design, however even if I didn’t sell it, I would still use it.
You have said you want to focus more on developing and expanding your use of social media in 2011. What ideas have you had so far to achieve this?
I think for social media marketing you should focus on Twitter and Facebook -in my opinion nothing else matters at the moment. Of course this could change in the future but for now they are the best. I have had a presence on Twitter for a long time, but have only recently started interacting on Facebook. I am still learning my way around, however the Facebook community is slowly but surely growing. Most of the work has been spent integrating Facebook into the Pro Theme Design website. I hope to do something similar on Binary Moon, my personal site, in the not too distant future as well.
Are there any resources on the internet you use that you would recommend for beginners and advanced designers?
The one tip I would give I have already mentioned. Learn to learn. When I was little my head teacher at school always used to tell us (repeatedly) that the brain is a muscle. If you don’t use it, then it will stop working properly. As such just keep on designing and practicing and designing and practicing. The more you do, the better you will get.
In terms of resources, I have spent the last few years building up a scrap book of inspirational website screenshots which I enjoy looking through when I get a creative block.
I would also recommend spending time learning about design theory. A lot of people are incredibly good at putting together designs in Photoshop, and there’s loads of tutorials about that, but I think a lot of the fundamentals have been lost. It’s become all about the how, instead of the why. People should spend more time learning about usability and user experience, and make sure they do things for the right reason, and not just because they are using the latest Photoshop technique to hit the net.