I'm looking for some direction on what the most proper way to achieve a particular layout on a page. Basically I'm looking at a horizontal, scrollable set of thumbnails at the top of the page's body, and then below that row, two columns, one with a larger image, the other with a large piece of descriptive text.

I'm torn between endless plugin searching and tweaking or just doing it myself.

If I go the DIY route, I think I'd use custom fields (probably with the custom field suite plugin, as I have experience with it) with a "repeater" for entering each image and description. I could easily make a page template that would spit out all the thumbnails in a div, then a series of divs nested in a wrapper for both the large image and the text. This part is easy.

The hard part is then diving into jquery (and likely some existing jquery gallery plugin) to basically turn those thumbs into something scrollable, link them to each large image/description and handle all the logic of "hiding" the non-active images.

Any pointers on which direction might get me there faster?

I suggest going with a slider plugin like Layer Slider or this http://www.wonderplugin.com/wordpress-slider/ . You're right that a plugin search for this kind of topic has the potential to be endless, so look for customizability and extendability in the plugin.

Similarly for going the DIY route. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Find a strong jQuery slider, pop the code in, add a little PHP to get your images and you'll be good to go. For organizing the actual images, I would use a core WordPress Gallery. It will give you the most control in managing your images in the future, will work with any theme, and never need updating.

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