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Joomla And WordPress: A Matter Of Mental Models

Open-source content management systems (CMS) are a large family of Web applications, but if we’re looking for stability, performance and average technical requirements, we’ll come up with a handful of options. In the past, choosing the “right” CMS was a matter of the project’s requirements, but now this is not completely valid because the paradigm of extensibility had driven the development of major CMS’ towards a model of core features that are extensible with plug-ins that fill virtually any requirement.

Picking the right CMS is then a matter of “mental models”: choosing the one that best fits our vision of how a Web application should work and what it should provide to users and administrators. In this article, we’ll explore the main difference in the mental models: of WordPress and Joomla for theming and extending their core.

Background Thoughts Link

Joomla and WordPress

WordPress and Joomla are two of the most popular open-source CMS’ around. They offer large and active developer communities and excellent documentation.

WordPress is the first choice among the designer community mostly because of its well-designed back end and wide availability of excellent themes.

Joomla, meanwhile, suffers from Mambo’s legacy, which was notorious for low performance and semantically incorrect output (such as nested tables for layout). But since the release of version 1.5, Joomla has a completely rewritten core, with improved extensibility and better HTML output.

One difference between WordPress and Joomla is their theming model. A website developer migrating from Joomla to WordPress might feel that the latter requires too much theme coding, while a developer moving the other way might feel that Joomla is less flexible and customizable. The reason for this is the different models on which the themes of these CMS’ are based.

WordPress’ Theming Model Link

WordPress Theme

WordPress’ theming model is based on a per-view structure. This means that in each theme, you could have individual view files for the post list, the single post and the archive pages. These files are independent of each other, allowing the developer to customize each view but requiring them to duplicate many parts of the code. The only common parts in a theme are the header and footer, which can be coded directly in the individual view anyway.

The main drawback of this model is that different views will not always require a different presentation (for example, the archive, category list and tag list are just lists). To overcome this problem, a theme is organized in a hierarchical structure, in which more generic views are used as fallbacks for specific ones. The common fallback for a WordPress theme is the index.php file, which is actually the only required file (along with a style sheet) in a theme. A complete reference and visual diagram of the hierarchical structure of a WordPress theme are available here1.

The Loop and Template Tags Link

To better understand how a WordPress theme works, we need to look more closely at the “loop” and template tags.

All data for a post or a list of posts is extracted through a loop. A loop is basically a while construct that begins with this declaration:

<?php if (have_posts()) : while (have_posts()) : the_post(); ?> 

// post output here 

<?php endif; endwhile; ?>

The most important part of this code is the_post(), which initializes a global $post PHP object containing all of the page data. The loop construct is also required for single post view, because all functions for presentation of data rely on the presence of the $post object. These functions are called template tags, and their main purpose is to output formatted data. Usually, they do not output HTML tags so that they can be used in different scenarios.

A complete guide to theme development is available here2.

Joomla’s Content-Based Model Link

Joomla Template Configuration File

Joomla has a completely different theming approach. Joomla’s templates are built on a common structure defined in an index.php file.

This file contains both static content (i.e. content that is common throughout the website) and template tags, which serve as content place-holders and are replaced by HTML output during the page-rendering phase.

A common form for a template tag is:

<jdoc:include type="modules" name="right" style="xhtml" />

Template tags differ in the type of content they provide: component, message, module, head.

This structural backbone implies that each view in the CMS outputs not a complete page but just what’s needed to present content. At first glance, a developer used to the theming model of WordPress might think that there’s no way to customize this content block. In fact, Joomla relies on the MVC architectural pattern3, meaning that data extraction and presentation are separated, the latter being rendered by the view part of the application.

Template Customization Link

To customize the default view, Joomla has a pattern called template override, through which the system scans the template folder for a custom view file to use in place of the default one. The image below shows the folder structure and naming convention of a default view and its override.

Joomla Template override
An example of the folder and file structure of a Joomla template override (from the “ja_purity” template).

Joomla overrides are an excellent way to customize a website template without hacks. Still, they are often overlooked, and Joomla’s support of legacy extensions make this pattern unusable, even for popular packages such as Virtuemart184 (which uses its built-in template system).

A complete reference for Joomla’s template system is available here5.

Beyond Core Link

Modular System
(Image by jared6)

In the last few years, plug-ins have made a big difference in the software industry, one of the most notable examples being Mozilla Firefox.

As we noted, modern CMS’ are developed to be extensible, allowing us to use the core as a backbone and build specialized parts on top of it. This resulting modular design is an effective development model for many reasons:

  • Better maintainability
    Developers don’t need to modify the core in order to add or customize functionality.
  • Lightweight and safer
    Only features that are needed are included, resulting in less memory consumption, a smaller code base and fewer vulnerabilities.
  • Separate development cycles for core and features
    By offering an extensions API, third-party developers can add new features while the core team focuses on the reliability and performance of the system.

With open-source projects, this last point is both a blessing and a curse. It benefits from shared development effort but leads to unverified work and a less organized workflow.

Joomla and WordPress have tried to overcome this curse by providing coding guidelines. Still, little effort is spent documenting the back-end and front-end UI design.

Aside from their different naming conventions, the extensions models of WordPress and Joomla differ in how third-party code interacts with the core by mean of the extensions API.

The key point to understand is that while Joomla is based on MVC pattern, WordPress relies on an event-like system to which extensions can be hooked. Let’s look at some details.

WordPress’ Hook Method Link

WordPress’ extensions model is based on the execution of a set of functions attached to the system flow by mean of “hooks.”

Hooks contain a list of functions that are triggered at various points as WordPress is running. They manipulate (in the case of filter hooks) and output (in the case of action hooks) database data and can be accessed from within the theme itself and from a specialized plug-in package.

WordPress lacks comprehensive documentation for hooks, but a list of hooks is available here7.

To understand the mental model behind WordPress’ hook system, we can compare it to the sequence of actions in baking a cake. In the beginning, we have an idea of what kind of cake we want to bake, so we get our ingredients. We cannot just throw everything together and bake it. So, we execute an ordered list of actions, such as “filtering” egg shells and mixing the eggs in with flour and sugar. As we’re doing that, we might want to customize the recipe. So, we “plug in” some chocolate and perhaps reduce the quantity of another ingredient by half. The result is a proper cake, created from discrete ingredients and a touch of creativity.

WordPress bakes its pages the same way.

While plug-ins are broadly related to hooks, a widget is a special type of plug-in. It provides a means of showing information in a theme’s sidebar. The main advantage of widgets is that they are configurable in the back-end interface, allowing quick customization even for novice users.

WordPress Widgets Page
All available widgets are listed in an administration panel.

In terms of theme development, the sidebar is similar in its mental model to Joomla’s template tags. It is a placeholder for something. The misleading bit is that a sidebar doesn’t have to be placed in the actual sidebar of a layout. It could go in the footer, navigation, header or elsewhere.

To learn more about the new API for widget development, have a look at the official documentation8.

Adding Functionality Link

Until now, the problem with WordPress’ extension API was that it gave you no simple way to add complex functionality, such as e-commerce carts and event listings. Most developers excused this shortcoming by pointing out that WordPress is a blog engine. This will hopefully be resolved with the release of WordPress 3.0 and its system for “post types,” which makes it possible to use the “post” and “page” interfaces for different types of content.

As for other popular CMS’ (such as Drupal9), post types function as a kind of “Content Construction Kit,” giving you the ability to smartly add, manage and present specialized content. If you’re interested in trying this new feature, here is a good tutorial10.

Other than post types (and until major plug-ins update support for this feature), the only feasible way to add complex functionality is to use already existing pages as containers, placing in the body a place-holder (called a “shortcode11“) that is replaced with HTML output by specific filter hooks.

This approach is used by plug-ins such as Buddypress12 and WP e-Commerce13, which extend the blog engine with social network and shopping-cart capabilities.

Another great example of shortcode implementation is Contact Form 714, a fully featured contact-form management plug-in.

Extending Joomla Link

An often overlooked aspect of Joomla is that it is built on the solid MVC framework. So, extending its core is really much like working with products such as Zend Framework and CodeIgniter, which give you an already designed back-end interface upon which to integrate your own extensions. This approach also gives designers the ability to use template overrides, even for third-party extensions.

Joomla! MVC Diagram
A diagram depicting Joomla’s Model View Controller system flow.

To better understand MVC and how it works in Joomla, here is a complete reference15.

Joomla’s Extension Types Link

Joomla’s extension model comes in three flavors, each with different tasks: components, modules and plug-ins.

Components extend the core by adding specific functionality, such as e-commerce carts, event listings and forums. From the user’s point of view, we can think of components as discrete sections of a website, not connected to other content. A popular example is JEvents16, an events calendar.

In the theme system, a component’s output replaces the component placeholder in the template’s index.php file:

<jdoc:include type="component" />

Modules are like widgets in WordPress: they show a component’s information, which is extracted from the database. They are “attachable” to module positions and can be put on every page of a website.

Modules are primarily intended to be teaser blocks, but they can incorporate full text and image galleries, which makes them handy for static parts of a layout, such as footer notes. They are also useful for showing related content on a page. For example, you could highlight interesting products for Web developers as they’re browsing a list of barcamp events.

The template tag, which serves as module place-holder, looks like this:

<jdoc:include type="modules" name="right" style="xhtml" />

Plug-ins work similar to WordPress’ hook system, because they bind to specific system events to format, manipulate and replace HTML output. Possible fields of action range from content for articles (such as video embedding tools—AllVideos17 is a popular one) to HTML filtering and user-profile extension. Commonly used Joomla plug-ins include URL rewriting filters, which come bundled with administrative components such as Sh404SEF.

Compatibility Issues Link

One thing every developer should be aware of is that, despite efforts to provide a great extension API, Joomla 1.5 still suffers in its support of legacy extensions (built for v1.0), which do not have an MVC structure and which are sometimes hardly customizable. Furthermore, they break the API mental model.

The Joomla extensions library has a clear mark for 1.0 or 1.5 native extensions. But faking 1.5 native compatibility is easy, which would leave developers with nothing but legacy code. This method is followed even by big well-known projects like Virtuemart184.

Hopefully, once Joomla 1.6 is released and legacy support is dropped, every developer will rework their code to fit the CMS’ specifications.

What’s Next Link

While the best way to choose a CMS is by trying it out on a real project, understanding its underlying mental model can make developers feel less lost in code and more aware of the design patterns they need to follow.

If you want to develop themes and extensions for Joomla and WordPress, here are some resources.




Footnotes Link

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Marco Solazzi is an Italian frontend developer interested in UI design and web usability. He's an active developer and supporter of Open Source Projects like Joomla! and Wordpress. He runs a personal website about technical topics and electronic music. He also collaborates as JavaScript author with the italian website

  1. 1

    Younes ADIL

    May 3, 2010 6:02 am

    Thx a lot…good job

  2. 2

    Go Typo3.

    • 3

      thats so 2001! you can built better, more flexible websites based on a cms system with other software too (not really joomla ;) ) you all should give a try !

      • 4

        Agree with choise.

      • 5

        Also agree. If TYPOlight had better documentation (particularly for developers), and perhaps a more flashy backend UI to appeal to the looks-are-most-important crowd that WordPress and ExpressionEngine draw, it would take the community by storm.

        • 6

          Well, it’s not just about looks. Design can also equal usability. TypoLight’s UI is convoluted, which makes it harder to use.

      • 7

        I definitely agree with you guys.

    • 8

      Hi folks,

      I agree with Zmee. ;) First thanks for this article, I always welcome such articles to get an impulse to look beyond my own nose :)

      WordPress is good for publishing prototypes or simple sites. From the view of a developer it’s a little bit “messy”. It’s 2010 guys, c’mon drop “$global”! But they’re on a good way, can see a lot of classes in trunk: Templating is very easy, even with very basic PHP knowledge. That simply makes the system very attractive for beginners but also pros because of the fast deployment cyclus.

      Nevertheless, I prefer TYPO3. It has a very lively community at a great set of extensions. Unfortunatly some built-in social-, community- and multimedia features are missing but can be installed very easily. In current the version the integration of remote multimedia content (YouTube, SlideShare, MP3 player) was simplified and there’s also a good social media extension on its way. For more information check out . For special requirements it’s worth to take a deeeep look at the TSRef. TypoScript is very mighty if it comes to face even complex tasks easily.

      • 9

        Marco Solazzi

        May 3, 2010 3:46 pm

        Hi, I’ve worked on TYPO3 back in 2007 so can’t say much about current releases. Anyway i’ve always liked its lively community but i must admit that typoscript learning curve may be too high for some developers and required resources to run a large website won’t compare to lighter and still powerfull CMSs.

      • 10

        Typo3 is for sure THE most powerful CMS out there and with all the flexibility it provides a pro-developer can scale it infinitely.
        But I must point out the part where I say: Pro-Developer.
        Typo3 is not for the average “you and me” person. It requires a lot of development work to get your site started. And without TypoScript you barely get past a basic static beginner web site.
        How ever, if one puts the effort in and learns to master Typo3 and most important TypoScript for that matter a professional Web Designer will absolutely be able to offer even largest corporate web projects of global proportions.
        For smaller projects how ever, it’s shooting on Birds with cannons.

    • 11

      I Agree! TYPO3 is the most powerful and flexible CMS, but you need skills to work with it.

  3. 12

    Nick Ballinger

    May 3, 2010 6:09 am

    Just FYI… WordPress 3.0 (scheduled to go final in May 2010) uses a new method to to display the primary loop that virtually eliminates any duplicated code. Since this was listed as a primary drawback for this platform, I felt it was important to note.

  4. 13

    Great job w/ the description of the two

  5. 14

    I actually did develop a site in WordPress after building many in Joomla. I found it to be just as you wrote in the article -a somewhat difficult paradigm to understand after working with the MVC model.

    Still, I could see why most of the design community really loves WordPress. I just don’t prefer it myself. However, there are many, many flaws in Joomla which frankly I don’t see being addressed in the 1.6 alphas that I’ve seen.

    Hopefully they can pull it together, because it looks like WP 3.0 is going to be head & shoulders better than 2.X.

  6. 15

    I’ve just started developing sites in WordPress. I’m used to Moveable Type and Typepad and I find WP’s way of configuring a site a bit confusing. It would be useful to read a similar article comparing WP to SixApart’s CMSs.

  7. 17

    Dan Walker

    May 3, 2010 6:23 am

    I think a lot of it is preference, I prefer WordPress by miles to Joomla so I don’t even tend to think about it if I can get the project to work on WordPress

  8. 18

    A good introductory article. I would have liked to see a reference to the recently created template frameworks for Joomla! that help to create templates in an easier and more customizable (from the backend) way. Frameworks such as Warp5 by YooTheme, T3 by JoomlaArt or the powerful Gantry by Rocket Theme can be a good start for template designers.

  9. 19


    May 3, 2010 6:32 am

    Great post/article (!)

    I just don’t agree when you mention “legacy extensions” for Joomla as a weak point.
    Hardly anyone uses that ” legacy ” extensions anymore.
    It’s hard to find an extension that is not MVC today. And like you mentioned, 1.6 is coming soon.

    Now, Virtuemart is THE big exception but it’s already being re-written to the MVC model and new alternatives keep coming.

    And WordPress has easily the nicest CMS backend UI :)

    Not long ago I gave a presentation on this that is worth checking out, in case someone is interested:
    “How to choose between Joomla, WordPress and Drupal – Is there a best choice?”


    • 20

      Nice presentation Marco!

    • 21

      i really liked that picture of Dr.House btw
      but your conclusion about drupal is just it

    • 22

      I would most certainly say that there is no need for Joomla 1.0.x legacy support, I haven’t used any of the components/modules/plug-ins for it for almost a year now, and if I was it was forced by my company.

      The article seems a little biased towards WordPress but it’s not often you read about Joomla in websites as popular as Smashing Magazine.

      Overall a good viewpoint of both CMS’s, thanks Marco.

  10. 23

    James Parker

    May 3, 2010 6:35 am

    Kind of disappointed you didn’t bring Drupal into this. In my opinion it has a much more solid core and has many more options for extensibility.

    • 24

      dominic heron

      May 3, 2010 7:00 am

      They’re just self-consciously following the masses. WordPress and joomla in particular are both inferior to drupal in innumerable ways, but the herd always prefers the simpler, shallower choice – and Smashingmag has its advertising numbers to think about. The unfortunate truth is drupal is less of a draw for this sort of front-end heavy readership. It doesn’t worry me – drupal is supreme and there’s serious money in it because of the scarcity of developers.

      • 25

        that`s totally true

        also when i develop a site
        i am really sure about drupal integrity and flexibility
        so in the future when a feature is wanted i`m most of the time 99 % sure that it will get realized

      • 26

        Ellis Benus

        May 14, 2010 11:00 am

        And this is why I hear almost no one who developes on Drupal or runs it on their site.


        I have never met a more angry or rude group of developers than those who work with Drupal.

        You embodied that just now…

      • 27

        Mike Schinkel

        May 18, 2010 7:24 pm

        I taught OOP commercially to training clients back in the earlier 90’s and I’ve programmed in over 5 languages before PHP including custom ASP+VBScript+SQL Server apps from 1995 until 2005. Back in 2006 I chose Drupal because of it’s elegant architecture and developed for it for over two years. Then I was asked to do a project on WordPress and since then have never looked back.

        While WordPress is less “elegant” than Joomla or Drupal it is far more robust when it comes to actually delivering solutions. The Drupal developer spends 9% of their time doing 85% of an app, then spends 10 times as long trying to get Drupal to get out of the way in order to complete the remaining 15% of the project. And Drupal is so nested that debugging it is a nightmare!

        Joomla on the other hand suffers from object model complexity and the fragile base class problem.

        After being an advocate and instructor for OOP in the 90’s I now realize that pure OOP often creates more problems then it solves. The lack of rigid class structures and the essentially event-driven model of WordPress create a perfect balance between structure and flexibility, design and extensibility.

        If you feel that Drupal or Joomla are more elegant than WordPress and that’s more important to you, knock yourself out. I’ll be over here busy getting instead projects done and getting them done quickly using WordPress.

        • 28


          It looks like we both come from the old school, the days of Borland vs Watcom. Ahh, the late 80’s and 90’s. ;)

          I’ve been a programmer for 22 years, about 12 of which is PHP. I typically custom build back end systems that integrate with Adobe Contribute, since Contribute is wonderful for end-users to manage their site.

          I’ve been looking at stock CMS systems (vs building my own with something like code igniter / modx looks good, but the documnetation is a little murky).

          I took a long hard look at Drupal, but it seems to be a nightmare to configure and probably overkill for my usual clients such as small businesses, npo’s etc.

          Yesterday, I jumped into Joomla, but after looking (for the 10^100 time) at other systems – and this article, WordPress looks interesting.

          I guess my 4 main priorities are :

          1. Ease of use for my client to manage their own site.
          2. Ease of building custom templates/themes
          3. Ease of coding plugin-s etc, using php.
          4. Ease of integration of technology like jQuery, embedding flash (such as a video section of a news site)

          Since this post, what are your feelings on the current releases of WP and Joomla! in these regards?

    • 29

      Marco Solazzi

      May 3, 2010 3:14 pm

      Hi James,
      yeah i’ve considered to also include Drupal in the article, but right now i’m not enough expert on it to go beyond the “how-to-code” surface.
      I’m planning, though, to write about it in the next future.

      • 30

        You should definitely give Drupal a go, it’s more than just a CMS. From my experience it’s the most flexible and powerful one out of all!

        • 31

          Agreed. Drupal is awesomely flexible and impressively stable.

          But it is hideously ugly. Please do a article on ‘Designing for Drupal’ so your audience can bang out some better templates.

  11. 32

    I’ve used both for years. I really like how I can login to WP and see which plugins need to be updated. Click a button and I am good to go. Maintaining my Joomla sites was always the tough part. I found myself always taking it down to update a MOD/plugin/COMponent. Even with the latest Joomla with the builtin installer, it isn’t as smooth as WordPress.

    One thing that articles need to look into is…
    1. How smooth/easy is it to update the core part of the CMS and its many third party extensions.
    2. When something is removed, how ‘clean is the install’. i.e. You can pretty much through away an app on the Mac away and know that your system is pretty clean. Whereas install an app on Windows, and you have 100s of little files everywhere. There are utilities for both to help remove 100% of left over files… alas…. Anyways, in the CMSs I have used, this always seems a week point. You install stuff over the years, remove it, update it… and over time, you’ll need to do a complete refresh as junk builds up… sometimes causing stuff to go bad.
    3. How efficient is the database schema. Some CMS I have used make their databases bloat so quickly. For example, add a custom field to a post and ALL posts have that custom field attached, where they use it or not. Your DB balloons!
    4. How ‘standards compliant’ is the ‘core output’ I don’t know if it is still an issue on Joomla, etc, but I recall that you could get a nice XHTML template but some of the html the CMS itself spits out was very 80s. You’ll go crazy trying to get it to be compliant.

    It would be good for Smashing to compare:
    Joomla, Drupal, WordPress AND Expression Engine.
    100s of CMS out there, but to me, these are the ones that now count. (Sorry to users of other CMSs.) It would be very excellent to choose a topic, for example, ‘A Real Estate site’ Have examples of how you would use all four to make such a site. In reading that, people would walk away with ‘Oh, that one is powerful… oh that one takes too many steps to do that… oh, that one would need some serious extra plugins, etc’

    • 33

      I would like to see such comparison made with Expression Engine or even better, MODx.

      Like another commenter said, it feels so 2001…

    • 34

      Marco Solazzi

      May 3, 2010 3:53 pm

      @Carlos: both Joomla and WordPress aren’t hard to update, for components and plugins (as for every 3rd party code) it really depends on their very own code (J! and WP has simple way to implements extension update though).
      Anyway this article wasn’t meant to deepen into technical topics, just to outline development mental models applied to two of the most popular CMs around.

  12. 35

    Jamal Nichols

    May 3, 2010 6:39 am

    People still use Joomla?

    • 36

      man, Joomla=powerful, flexible, lot of community component/ yes, Joomla still alive.

    • 37

      Joomla is VERY popular. You’re going to get your Drupal and Typo guys on here making claims that their system is the only one to use, but reality is use the best tool for the job.

    • 38

      People still use WordPress? ;-)

  13. 39

    The title of the post is the best for cms comparing.

    For me , the great advantage of wp is the user feedback from the blogging plattform and a lot of people know wordpress and know how to use it.
    customers that worked with drupal, joomla and other cms, are fall in love with wp. As developer, after study inside wordpress, it’s not difficult to change the templates, add sidebars, make my own plugins, widgets and shortcodes.

    For wp i recommend use of thematic theme (or other framework) and do child themes.

    i’ts my 2 cents.

  14. 40

    Sunny Kumar

    May 3, 2010 6:53 am

    WordPress Rocks !

  15. 41

    Elin Waring

    May 3, 2010 6:54 am

    @Jamal, with 600,000 downloads a month, I guess they do :P.

    Great write up about two great applications. The enforcement of MVC in joomla! 1.6 is going to mean a huge step forward for site developers. Virtuemart is in the middle of a major rewrite to bring it up to standards, and I know that many others are also. It’s a very exciting time.

  16. 42


    May 3, 2010 6:54 am

    Expression Engine is not even Open Source.

    If you really want a strong comparison between Joomla, WordPress & Drupal,
    there isn’t anything better than the ‘CMS Showdown’ at the moment:

    (Though is from March 2009)

    • 43

      Is open source, developed with codeigniter. it’s not free.

      • 44


        May 3, 2010 11:11 am

        Really? you got me there :)

        Expression Engine is VERY interesting because of CodeIgniter 2.0 but the price is a big turn off to me.

        • 45

          But if you develop sites for a living, doesn’t it pay for itself?

          • 46

            Why use EE, when Drupal is hands down better, and of course free?

  17. 47

    Bournemouth Web Design

    May 3, 2010 6:56 am

    We use both Joomla and WordPress CMS depending on what the client requirements are. Obviously we have 2 sorts of developers/SME’s that are familiar with one of those CMS’s.

    I personally prefer to use WordPress and have struggled to “get my head round” Joomla but one day I will get there :-)

    A great article.

  18. 48

    WordPress is more easy to use but has limited uses. I know you can make wordpress do a lot of things but Joomla is a complete CMS (Modules & Stuff) but difficult for noobies (i felt this). WordPress is constantly evolving and the new 3.0 release will bring a lot of needed features making WP something better than a blogging platform :)

  19. 49


  20. 50


    May 3, 2010 7:04 am

    Good article, thx. I know Joomlas structure quite well but not WordPresss. This gave me a great introduction to the differences.


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