Design Fixations with Mediawiki Skins

I spent much of last week with my head inside a Mediawiki skin (when I probably should have been working on another project). I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I sometimes get fixated by technical problems I can’t seem to solve.

I first customized the FraternalRelief Mediawiki skin to match my organization’s home page. My customization wasn’t too bad, but I saw a few errors, and when I queried a forum, they told me FraternalRelief was no longer compatible with the current version of Mediawiki. Who would have thought.

Fine. I found a compatible Paul Gu theme and customized it again to match my organization’s site. But during a design review meeting with my team, I brought up the fact that the theme was licensed under GPL. I don’t understand the finer details of GPL, but the thought crossed my mind that perhaps GPL would require me to make my customization available to the world. A Mediawiki forum moderator said that would only be the case if I were trying to distribute the skin — then I would have to give it away for free. But still, I wasn’t sure.

Then another team member brought up another point. He said my customization should either look exactly like the original site or it should be noticeably different. No cheap knock-offs or it will throw readers off. I had to agree.

So after the meeting I commenced to pull apart the default Mediawiki skin (Monobook) piece by piece in an effort to understand it. I copied over the stylesheets and layout of the page I was trying to match. And then one by one I copied over chunks of Mediawiki PHP code, trying to understand what each code snippet does.

I copied the source code of the organization page I was attempting to clone. I downloaded all the stylesheets. I pulled down about two dozen images referenced in the stylesheet. I then commenced to integrate the code into the Mediaskin. After about a day and a half, I finally cloned it.

The problem is, Mediawiki has tons of additional components that a regular website doesn’t. This is what most people don’t understand when they want to convert their regular HTML website to WordPress — WordPress has a lot more components, each with unique styles. And some of the components only appear at certain times, under certain conditions. So while I cloned my organization’s page into a Mediawiki skin, I also have many styles that I need to create. (I wish I could show a screenshot here, but I can’t since it’s behind the firewall.)

I am starting to like working with Mediawiki as much as I like working with WordPress. Last week the world could have disintegrated around me, and I wouldn’t have noticed or even pulled myself away to look.

I don’t get fixated with writing help topics in the same way. Mostly writing helps topics is a chore. It’s not what I wake up dying to do. But to design the skin, the frame around which the content will display, that’s the fun part. It’s what I’ll do despite all obstacles.

This is not to say, however, that I have aspirations to be an interaction designer. I do love to write. It’s nearly 1 a.m., and I couldn’t sleep because I wanted to write. But to be free to design and configure the publishing platform for my content is something that, at times, mesmerizes me.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

3 thoughts on “Design Fixations with Mediawiki Skins

  1. Chris McQueen

    It happens to me too. I have a small theory behind this drive; it’s a theory my wife doesn’t completely buy into, but I think there’s some psychology behind it. :-)

    So, you know when you get a song stuck in your head? Well, my theory is that you get that song in your head when you don’t know all the words. You might have a song that you know come to your mind, but it rarely gets stuck there. If you can finish the song, you can push it out.

    Well, I get the same problem with technical issues. It’s a problem that I’m confident can be solved, but I probably don’t know how to do it completely. There are unknowns in the issue. Your situation is a perfect example of what you think ‘can’ be done, but isn’t done regularly, so although it’s technically possible, there are general limitations and issues. And, since skinning a wiki to match a standard site isn’t done all too often, you don’t have a lot of guidance.

    The good news is, this is a perfect situation for self-directed learning. In essence, these are the problems we learn the most from because a) you want it, and b) there are things you don’t know.

    To me, it sounds like a good problem. Too bad the site is behind the firewall, it would be fun to see what you come up with.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Chris, I like your metaphor/comparison with songs stuck in your head. I think that exactly describes it. I guess the trick is getting the right things stuck in your head. Worst case scenario, it could turn into an OCD, right? Where you have ridiculous loops stuck in your head.


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