Chandra Maharzan Interview
Meet minimalist Graph Paper Press designer and WordCamp Nepal co-organizer Chandra Maharzan (@maharzan). You might know Chandra as the designer of “Gridspace” — a top ten theme at WordPress.com. In this interview, Chandra offers some hard-won advice for young designers, talks about what makes the Nepal WordPress community special, the challenges of translating WordPress into Nepali, and the importance of meeting face to face to help one another learn, create connections, and build our communities.
Tell us the story of how you got into working with WordPress.
When I was working as a web developer back in early 2000s, each and every customer’s requirement was different. There was no one such platform that I could rely on. I, along with the team, tested various open source platforms such as Joomla, Drupal, and phpNuke, but almost all of them were very complex for the simple site that we focused on. Other platforms required you to learn a separate language even if it was based on php. So, in almost all the projects, we just kept on listing the client’s requirements and creating custom Content Management Systems. So, at one point, it just got too repetitive so we looked for a more simple and flexible CMS platform. We discovered WordPress in 2005. It was more or less a blogging tool back then but we tried to use it as a CMS for a simple site and interestingly, as WordPress matured, it did develop as a CMS. After that, there was no turning around.
You’re the organizer of WordCamp Nepal. What do you enjoy most about organizing WordCamps and what has organizing WordCamps taught you?
Oh, there is a team of co-organizers for WordCamp Nepal. It wouldn’t be possible without all their help. One of the core strengths of WordPress is its community. While in this cyber age, almost everyone just loves to sit back and work behind their screens, it is necessary to bring everyone together, to know each other, and share experiences. WordCamps or even WordPress meet-ups contribute to this a lot. I have met many talented people and have seen them growing and working on awesome projects, some of them finding partners, some even establishing companies, working on government projects and some contributing a lot on wordpress.org. It really makes me happy to see this active WordPress community and where it’s heading. Organizing WordCamps definitely teaches a lot. I have learned more about organizing events like this, talking to different people, and even giving talks. I have learned how we can inspire people to give their best and how we can give others the best experience out of sometimes very limited resources.
How would you describe the WordPress community in Nepal? How might it differ from other WordPress communities around the world?
We are still a new community if you talk about Nepal. We started the community in 2011. The biggest difference between the WordPress community here and other parts of the world is that our community operates from a Facebook Group. Almost everyone who has access to the internet here has a Facebook account and since everyone can check it from mobile devices as well, it was just much easier to gather and organize the group. To this date, we have grown to about 1200 members. We have a lot of students and professionals and even some outstanding people in the group like I mentioned above. The best part of the community is that it’s very helpful. I see people asking questions and many jumping in to help answer them. While we haven’t seen WordPress Core contributions, I have seen many contributing free themes and plugins and reviewing them on wordpress.org.
You’re leading translation of WordPress into Nepali. What are the biggest challenges you face in internationalizing/localizing WordPress? How are you meeting these challenges?
There is a lot of difficulties in translating English to Nepali or vice versa. The grammar is just the opposite. More difficulties arise when there are technical words or new abbreviations that this computer world uses. There are no words for them in Nepali. We did 75% of the translation without much difficulty but for the last 25%, it has taken forever. We requested some professional translators to help translate and they have done the best they could. I am thinking we should complete the whole translation by keeping some words that “cannot” be translated in English and give it to the community. I am sure with time, it will be more polished.
In your design work with Graph Paper Press and WPshoppe you focus on clean, minimalist design and strong typography. How did you cultivate your design sense and how have you refined it over the years?
I was interested in art and design since childhood. I just didn’t have the opportunity to continue that in school. When I was in college, I thought I should continue doing what I love and virtually gave up engineering. The web was THE thing back then. Having never used a computer, it was awesome to see what computers could do. I was always reading tutorials to create designs and looking at various resources to get inspired. Soon after I started working, “Flash” designs and all the Web 2.0 stuff came in. I wasn’t into that stuff. I gradually started loving minimalist design. Whenever I saw a good design, I dove deep on why that design looked good. It has always been a lot of white space, typography, and focus on one element rather than a lot of small elements. It was more concentrated on a good user experience. This has been the core of my design practice and I do it at work all the time. I also keep researching and looking for current trends and keep myself updated and a step ahead.
Do you have a favorite project that you can share with us? Why is it your favorite? What are the three most important things you learned from working on it?
I have couple of projects that I have learned a lot from. SimpleX was my first WordPress theme which I made back in 2008. I had used WordPress but had never tried building a theme on my own. It was based on the default theme and the first that I posted on the WordPress.org theme repository. I was really surprised at how it gained the attention of many. There were surprises all over after that: many people requesting to keep a donate button on the site, a few people even asking where to buy the “free” theme and just wanting to give something in return. I realized, there are people out there who appreciate good stuff. I continued building free themes, one of which has been used by blogs in different Mozilla projects. I had just scratched the surface and the success was just coming. I was able to work with Graph Paper Press to realize how WordPress could be used to replace Flash to create photography websites. This was one turning point because, while the world was busy blogging, we were changing the world and changing Flash-based photography sites to SEO-friendly WordPress sites. I think this was one of the great achievements during that time. The rest is history. So, the lessons I learned from those initial projects are that you should never underestimate the power of giving your creations away for free, you should always focus on what you do best, and with persistence and patience, you always get to taste that success sooner than later. In fact, one of the themes I made for Graph Paper Press (Gridspace) has been one of the top ten Most Popular themes on WordPress.com for a long time now.
What advice can you offer a young designer just entering the world of WordPress?
From a designer’s point of view, I always see that many “wannabe” designers out there just want to throw in all the things they know and and have heard of in their designs. In most cases, these turn out to be flashy, have too many colors / fonts, too much content, and it becomes ugly. If you are just beginning, you should try to grab the attention of the user. And in most cases, less is more. Focusing on simple color palettes and minimalism can be a good starting point. Since WordPress is made from HTML/CSS and some PHP, I think it’s the easiest platform for any designer to work with. If you also want to dive into the theme business like many others, giving away free themes while you are learning is the the best thing to do. You are not losing anything but gathering your audience and experience. As soon as you feel confident, you can start selling themes, earn a living, and even taste success.