The Godbit Interview

Symphony 2: A CMS to Build a Dream On

Nathan Smith, the creator of, has asked if I was up for doing a Godbit interview. I have appreciated Nathan’s support by giving nods to my work on and on as well as his support for web standards, Textpattern and for raising the bar for designers of church websites.

The Interview

  1. What inspired you to strike out on your own and start a web design business?
  2. For those that are not familiar with Bauhaus, would you explain the inspiration behind the name Bauhouse?
  3. Time was, you were a fanatical user of Textpattern, but now you are an advocate of Symphony. What prompted the change?
  4. Being a design minded individual, did you find XSLT to be a difficult learning curve? What resources would you recommend?
  5. How did you come to faith in Jesus Christ? Please share your personal testimony of how you came to know the Lord.


What inspired you to strike out on your own and start a web design business?

Starting a design business was an opportunity to work on projects that I didn’t expect to find working for advertising agencies or design studios. Fresh out of college in 1988, I began my career as a junior designer, stat camera operator, production artist at a Vancouver, BC design studio, now Fleming Creative Group. About six months into those two years, we learned about something new that promised to enhance our production department: Aldus Pagemaker on a black and white Macintosh Classic. By the time I left, the production department was in the process of phasing out their phototypesetting equipment and we were working on Mac IIs with Aldus Freehand and QuarkXPress. I was naive enough to think that I could buy a Mac and run my own design business.

I started Bauhouse Visual Communications in 1991 with a dream to eventually build a magazine, a youth-oriented publication focused on developing a creative outlet for my generation and specifically to encourage a dialogue between the cloistered church and the mainstream culture. At the time, creativity in the church tended to be an oxymoron and I had hoped to be part of changing this.

The Bauhaus

For those that are not familiar with Bauhaus, would you explain the inspiration behind the name Bauhouse?

My cultural heritage is Chinese and English. My last name, Bau is a Chinese (Cantonese) name meaning abalone. It is also the German verb meaning to build. The Bauhaus is a famous design school started by Walter Gropius in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, soon after the end of World War I. Its primary concern was to build out of the ashes of the war something new, a new synthesis of form and craft, art and technology. By the time the Nazis closed the school in 1933, the Bauhaus had become the most influential advocates of the Modernist design movement, leading the way in technological innovations that proved to be the seedbed of entirely new professions such as graphic design and industrial design. The Bauhaus was the original proponent of the New Typography and the New Architecture which became known as the International style of architecture.

When I started my freelance design business, I was inspired by the idea of the Bauhaus. It incorporated the Modernist philosophy in the form of a community of masters and apprentices. There were masters of form and masters of craft, since what they were trying to accomplish was the integration of art and technology. The history of graphic design is just this: art adapting to the state of the art. Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong have described the transformation that occurred in human existence with the invention of written language. Technologies have a way of changing us and there are always unintended costs that come with the benefits. The invention of the phonetic alphabet set the stage for social change through the transformation of oral culture into literate culture. For example, the histories and laws of the nation of Israel preserved in written form have impacted our daily life in so many ways that we take for granted what has become a daily fact of our existence. The seven day week is a prime example of the power of the written text to reinforce patterns of thought and behaviour. As a graphic designer, I’ve always been intrigued by God’s relationship to technology. In Deuteronomy 9:10, Moses proclaims,

The LORD gave me two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments the LORD proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of the assembly.

Reading that makes me wonder, Did God develop the alphabet? Was it the Hebrew alphabet currently in use? Moses was likely raised to read and write Egyptian hieroglyphics, so why use a phonetic alphabet? Why use an alphabet using only consonants, no vowels? Was it flush right, ragged left? Justified? Why did he choose the Hebrew culture? What language did Adam and Eve speak?

Like Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain, I was also intrigued by the story of Bezalel. Francis Schaeffer was an influence in my thinking about the Church and its relationship to the arts. He and Hans Rookmaaker wrote of the divide between God’s attitude toward the arts, evident in the elaborate instructions on the building and furnishing of the Mosaic tabernacle and later the temple of Solomon, in contrast with the decline of the arts in Christian culture. It seemed to me that the Church was in a situation similar to that of the exiled Jews in ancient Babylon. Finding ourselves in a culture that tended to be hostile to living life in harmony with our Creator, like Nehemiah, we were faced with the choice of being assimilated or of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. For the Church, I saw this as clearly delineating the difference between what it means to be followers of Christ or people of the world.

At the onset of the digital revolution, the tools of the trade were changing. I hoped to see the content of social discourse change as well. Neil Postman wrote of the social effects of modern media, primarily television, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. With media so focused on image and entertainment, the opportunities for deeper social discourse were severely limited, impairing a people’s ability to make good decisions regarding politics, economics or life in general. Information became something to consume, but nothing we could tangibly respond to.

The Bauhaus was about rebuilding creative industry around art and technology. Inadvertently, it may also have set in motion the modern notion of discarding the old in favour of the new, including antiquated notions of faith and religion. In the Bauhaus Manifesto, Walter Gropius proclaimed:

Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form, and will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.

Whether intentional or not, my impression of this grandiose ideal was that the New Architecture sounded a lot like the old Babel. Modern life had become the new faith, Science its architect and Advertising its priest. In contrast, I wanted to build a design business around rebuilding the church using art and technology to turn our focus from the consumption of information and products to developing stronger relationships with each other and with our Creator, providing information to help us love God and love others. So the Bauhouse was meant to be counter cultural, turning the original meaning on its head: to build the house of God rather than the temple of man.

Symphony vs. Textpattern

Time was, you were a fanatical user of Textpattern, but now you are an advocate of Symphony. What prompted the change?

In light of my previous ramblings, interesting that you used the word fanatical. Yes, Textpattern was my tool of choice after building a site using TYPO3 while working as a designer for International Christian Response. The application was so large, with thousands of tiny files that weighed in at over 50 Mb, that it was a nightmare to install without shell access to the server.

I was following the work of Jeffrey Zeldman, Douglas Bowman and Dave Shea at the time, and had dabbled with Six Apart’s MoveableType and what was then pMachine. Web standards was high on my list of requirements for front end and back end. I discovered Textpattern by following the link from Jon Hicks’s site. Textpattern came closest to what I was looking for to replace TYPO3 as something that would be much easier to work with. Working with a non-profit organization dictated that whatever solution I could find to manage our site would need to be inexpensive to operate. As Textpattern is open source and was designed with web standards in mind, it was the logical choice at the time.

However, working with Textpattern, I soon ran up against some limitations. My knowledge of PHP scripting was not enough to be able to build my own plugins. So, I relied on others to create and update plugins to extend the functionality of the application, scouring the forums to find the latest. Dissatisfied with the inability to easily style the admin area of Textpattern, I stumbled across a link to a new CMS called Symphony. At the time, it was not open source, but I was so impressed by its clean, simple design that I purchased a license to give it a try.

Even now, the development team admits that the Symphony 1.0 version was not really ready for prime time. However, its ability to manage clean URLs with a /section/category/entry/ format was enough to keep me interested enough to follow the development, even though XSLT looked like just one more thing to learn. Much of the knowledge I gained from working with txp tags carried over to working with the sym tags that Symphony 1.0 used. What sold me was the small community of developers that was growing and contributing ideas about how to make this application better. What amazed me most was the responsiveness of the development team. Within hours of posting on the forum, we would have answers, guiding us often step-by-step through a particular problem. When things went horribly wrong, the developers would personally start poking through the files on the production server to fix the problem.

By September 2006, Symphony had a core group of developers who became the beta testers for Symphony 1.5, the first version to be offered under a free, but closed source, license. The application was completely overhauled, the sym tags had already been dropped in favour of actual XSL intructions, and Symphony sported a new database structure, unlimited custom fields, and extremely flexible parameter-based URL schemas to develop complex hierarchies. After a month working through the features and bugs on the forum and by email, and putting the application through its paces, I came up with a new site design for that I hoped would be able to showcase the possibilities of working with Symphony. True to form, I still haven’t finished it. It’s been a pleasure working with the three Twentyone Degrees developers, Allen Chang, Alistair Kearney and Scott Hughes. In effect, they have become my own application development team, working for Tim Tams from the Australian office. In reality, I have hired them to build a suite of Author Registration Campfire Services to extend the functionality of the application to support a member-based site. These I have offered to the Symphony community, free of charge.

Symphony 1.7 is the latest closed source release and has been stable since version when it was released in March 2007. The default installation appears as a demo on the Twentyone Degrees site and provides an example of a basic theme to use as the basis for learning how the system works. A quick look through the Showcase gallery provides a good overview of the layout and structural complexity that can be easily achieved using a templating system based on the W3C XSLT standard.

With Symphony 1.7, I was confident that I could convert existing client sites to Symphony, starting with The Wild Orange Spa and The Rice Raiser two sites that I had originally built with Textpattern.

Symphony 2 is currently in beta and is being offered as open source. The one disadvantage is the current lack of a data migration tool for sites running Symphony 1.7. But, this has been at the request of the community, who would rather sacrifice this type of convenience to be able to work with a tool that keeps getting better and better. For those who are just becoming acquainted, this is the best time to start learning. The major advantages of Symphony 2 are an improved workflow for creating Sections and Fields, allowing for customization of the backend that will lead to the ability to create entire backend menu systems dynamically with the addition of the soon-to-be-released Navigation Editor Extension (the new and better name for Campfire Services) and Text Area Editing Tools.

After enjoying the flexibility of Symphony as an application and XSLT as a templating language, complete with conditionals, parameters and data parsing logic, there is no turning back for me. To be fair, I don’t have extensive knowledge of the competing systems, but the lack of XSLT support is becoming more of a show stopper for me.

The power of XSLT becomes even more evident as I use Symphony as an application development environment. My first kick at this has been in the development of a project management system under the name of The Design Administration, or DesignAdmin. I started by building a calendar application built with Symphony and XSLT. When I discovered that I could build the logic for a calendar, it seemed an easy extension to build additional time and project management tools that could be integrated into a single web-based application.

I decided last year to phase out freelance design and took an employment position with Domain7 as a Designer. I’ve had the opportunity to work on site design and application interface design, focusing on what I know best: CSS. This has led to working on a redesign of the Project Manager module of the RouteOne suite of site and business management tools being used by Domain7 and its client base of over 400 customers. In the meantime, we are actually using Symphony to track project details and timesheet entries using the DesignAdmin application I designed as an interim solution while we build additional functionality into RouteOne. We have pushed Symphony 1.7 to its limits, and the new database structure of Symphony 2 is in many ways an answer to the performance issues we experienced.

XSLT: Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations

Being a design minded individual, did you find XSLT to be a difficult learning curve? What resources would you recommend?

There was definitely a learning curve, but Textpattern gave me a good introduction to the basics of using XML elements as instructions for creating dynamic pages. Understanding XPath is the key, but I found this to be similar to understanding how to select HTML elements with CSS to apply styles to a page. So, for a CSS designer, I find XSLT to be a natural extension of what I already know about XML and XHTML.

As for resources, I started with a review of the resources on XPath and XSLT at W3Schools. I’ve found O’Reilly’s XSLT 1.0 Pocket Reference to be the most helpful for understanding the basics. While it is sparse on Symphony documentation, the Overture Wiki has a great list of resources on XSLT. For the release of Symphony 2.0, documentation is a requirement for the final release. Mark Lewis, a Symphony user, Campfire Services developer and designated Overture Forum moderator, has been given the responsibility of writing and developing the documentation for the new Overture site, currently also in beta. My series on Building a Symphony Theme, though I never took the time to finish it, has also been a popular resource for those getting started with Symphony 1.7.


How did you come to faith in Jesus Christ? Please share your personal testimony of how you came to know the Lord.

I grew up with Christian parents and I have experienced several brands of Christianity ranging from Non-denominational, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Anglican, Baptist, Mennonite Brethren and Vineyard.

My faith has grown out of absorbing books and music readily available from the Christian bookstore that my parents used to run. I was baptized at 12 years old, but I never really felt spiritually connected to God. My high school years were spent attending an Anglican church, an experience which I found didn’t do much to build my faith (although this was more to do with where I was emotionally than the church itself). Keith Green, then Randy Stonehill made more sense to me than the empty spirituality I found in the Church. While in college, I lost any real enthusiasm for God and Christianity, plus the workload for the two-year graphic design program was intense, so it was more or less two years of straight work, but the world didn’t seem to offer anything at all that was as compelling as what I’d learned in the Church about the meaning of life. After starting work in Vancouver and life returned to a more normal pace, I started to attend South Delta Baptist Church, where solid biblical teaching gave me a foundation for building a relationship with Christ. As with some who grow up in the Church, I didn’t have a single life-changing spiritual experience to point to as the turning point in my life. It was more a daily decision to say, “Hey, I believe God made this world and that Jesus Christ entered history and absolutely transformed our reality. Jesus gave us life through his death and I want to live my life in a way that honours his sacrifice.”

We have been drawn as a family to a neigbourhood church that allows us to walk to the school where we meet in a couple minutes, and to get to know our neighbours as the congregation consists mostly of young families living in the same residential community.

7 February 2008 by Stephen Bau