Koken: A Stunning New Portfolio CMS

So you want to get your own website up and running? For those of us who want to do anything other than blog, the CMS options are somewhat limited. WordPress seems to be the default option for most websites, and it can be wrestled into nearly any shape required of it. However, this isn’t an easy road to take, and the end result is usually a far from ideal method of managing your site.

Enter the new Koken CMS. Still in beta, this free-to-download website manager has been built with the needs of creative folks in mind – beautiful galleries and easy to publish blogging with the minimum of fuss. As a photographer myself, I was very keen to try Koken, in the hope of finding the holy grail of self-hosted portfolio building, but does this fledgling CMS match its own hype?

Installation and Usability

Getting Koken set up is incredibly easy. You’ll need PHP 5.2, MySQL 5 and ImageMagick or GD Library installed on your webhost’s server to run Koken, but with these in place, getting this CMS to run is a simple process. Essentially, it is the same as manually installing WordPress – simply fill in your database and admin login details, and you’re good to go.

Koken installing

Koken installing

Helpfully, once Koken is installed, you’re presented with a very pretty walkthrough of the main features to be found in the admin area. Usability has clearly been carefully thought through in the building of Koken. Throughout the admin menus, every graphic seems almost hand polished, whilst media uploading and sorting can be achieved using drag-and-drop controls.

Koken's initial admin walkthrough

Koken’s initial admin walkthrough

Added together, these facets give Koken an outstandingly slick overall feel, and although I did stumble across the occasional slider or switch that was somewhat unwilling to move, it’s fair to say that this is one seriously polished beta.

Photo Management

Once you’ve uploaded an image to Koken’s Library, you can assign it a title, a caption, tags and categories. Other useful functions include the ability to set the copyright status of your media, and to allow visitors to download images.

You also have three visibility options for uploaded content: Public (visible to everyone), Unlisted (visible only to those with the url) and Private (only accessible for admins).

Uploading to Koken's Library

Uploading to Koken’s Library

You can then sort images into Albums, and Sets (groups of albums and other sets), opening up a large number of possible configurations when it comes to displaying your images. You can also place photos into the Featured Collection, which ensures their prominence on your home page.

Creating Albums and Sets

Creating Albums and Sets

The most important part of the Koken experience, though, is how well the galleries perform. The answer: nigh-on perfectly. The various themes display images in a number of different styles, but all share common ground – quick image loading, and minimal controls to avoid distraction from your work.

Koken's understated image galleries

Koken’s understated image galleries


Besides its obvious focus on image galleries, Koken also comes equipped with a very able blogging engine, which is accessible via the Text tab. Posts, known as Essays, can include virtually any kind of media, including tweets and slideshows. The pre-loaded themes also come optimized for the embedded content of sites like Vimeo and Flickr.

Koken's impressive blogging engine

Koken’s impressive blogging engine

I have to say that I was impressed by the quality of the blogging experience in Koken. It’s worth noting that only the basic tools of blogging are available (an excerpt, tags, categories and “topics”) but the ease with which you can publish posts is refreshing.


As much as I like Koken’s Library feature, the strongest element of this CMS by far is the suite of design tools, which can be found under the Site tab.

Every installation of Koken currently comes with nine pre-loaded themes. Apart from Blueprint, which is essentially un-styled, all of the other themes are elegant and cleanly-coded. Each has a small but useful array of styling options, allowing non-coders to change backgrounds and fonts.

Beautiful pre-loaded themes

Beautiful pre-loaded themes

Excitingly, for those of us who know some CSS, however, Koken has a live CSS console built in (which, I should add, updates pretty much instantly), alongside the ability to preview your live site. I really enjoyed using the CSS editor, but it was also a cause of irritation. Every time you switch tabs from your design Draft to the Live preview, the CSS panel folds away, which means that if you have a lot of changes to make, you’re going to be clicking the “Custom CSS” button a lot.

The design options in Koken

The design options in Koken

Settings and Options

In my view, the ideal CMS should strip out everything apart from the controls you really need, in order to avoid clutter. Happily, I think that’s pretty much the balance which has been struck in Koken.

The range of options under the Settings tab is limited, but the highlights include the ability to set the default visibility and copyright settings for new uploads, along with some basic fields for SEO.

Also under Settings is the option to install plugins. At the time of writing, only five are available (three of which relate to the in-built Pulse slideshow used on the front page of some of the themes), but no doubt this list will become longer and more useful in time.


Koken, it seems to me, has been built by creative people, for creative people – you don’t come up with a product as good as this without a real feel for your users’ needs. Koken may be in beta, but it’s already better for managing portfolios than anything I’ve ever tried, which puts it at the top of a long list!

I’d dearly love to give Koken full marks, but that wouldn’t be fair – it is still in beta, after all, and so there are some bugs, along with a somewhat spartan feature set and, currently, very little choice when it comes to add-ons.

The negatives to be found in this CMS are few and far between, though, and given a few months, I think that Koken will be a near-essential part of building an online portfolio.


A great, creative CMS in the making.