You’ve successfully installed WordPress to your site and hopefully poked around the Themes that come with the basic WordPress installation. Before you choose a new WordPress Theme, make sure you take the time to look at these Themes FIRST.
Begin by making at least THREE posts. Add a comment to one or two of them, but leave one comment free. Make sure you add these to one or more categories. They don’t have to be anything special, you just need more than one post so you can test drive the single and multi-post views. Hard to see what a multi-post view is when you only have one post.
Get out pen and paper and take notes on what you find. Begin with the first Theme and take time to closely look at all the details on each of the page generated views:
- Front Page View
- Single Post View
- Archives View
- Category View
- Search View
Pay close attention to how each page view differs from the other. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the single post view different from the multi-post view?
- Is the sidebar viewed across all views or just certain views? Which?
- Do you see the number of comments on all of the multi-post views of the posts, or just some?
- Does the header change on any of the views?
- Does the width of the content area change on any of the views?
- If there is a sidebar on all the views, do the items on the sidebar change depending upon the view?
Look closely at all the details of how all the parts and pieces come together. Pay attention to the following:
- How is the navigation? Can you find the different parts and pieces to move around the site?
- Is everything easy to read and find?
- Do you like the colors?
- Do you like the width of the parts and pieces or do you wish they were wider or narrower?
- Test the links – they change when hovered over. Do you like the results?
- Are the links easy to see and separate from the text without being distracting?
- Are the colors complementary?
- Are their icons, symbols, and small graphics on the site that enhance or distract from the overall look?
You will start to spot things that are not on the list. There is a lot to look at in a single Theme, from the huge details like the size and style of the header, to the smallest detail like the use of an icon or symbol on the category links. Make notes of all the things you like and dislike about this Theme.
When you’ve examined this Theme thoroughly, take a look at one of the other Themes and put it also through the test and review process.
WordPress Theme Similarities
As you look through the Themes that come installed with WordPress, you might see some similarities. With the introduction of WordPress v1.5, two Themes came with each installation: Classic and Default. Within the first six months or so of the release, most Themes seemed to be designed based upon these two Themes. As you poke and prowl around the Themes, you will start to recognize a Theme based upon the Classic Theme from a Theme based upon the Default Theme.
In general, Classic Theme-based designs feature the post meta data information on the categories, date and time of the post under the post title. At the bottom of the post or post excerpt is a series of links to the post and to the comments, usually featuring the number of comments posted so far. The view of the pages throughout the Theme are consistent with a sidebar on the right that reaches up to the top or just under the header, and other than the post view, the design of the site stays the same.
Default Theme-based designs feature a single post view without a sidebar and the content stretches across the column. The sidebar is also featured on the right, though some versions bring it over to the left. The header is wide and usually is ready to accommodate header art or images. The multi-post view like the front page features the post or the excerpt with only a title, and sometimes a list of categories under the title. The post meta data section is in a CSS box at the bottom of the post content on the single post view. No notes or highlights of comments are visible until the user visits the single post page, though they are occasionally added by Theme authors to the multi-post view.
Default Theme-based designs also have some distinctive issues with styles. Specifically, CSS styles regarding the header are stored in the
header.php rather than just in the
style.css for the Theme. If you need to make changes in the header or header image, you will need to consult both the
header.php template file as well as the style sheet. Background colors are not really colors as much as they are graphics filled with colors. Changing the background color in the header or sidebar may mean changing the graphic that creates the color in the background in the style sheet. There are also some hacks to force things like the arrows as bullets in the sidebar nested list, as some browsers don’t recognize character codes as bullets, just graphics. These are not good or bad or right or wrong, they are just things you may need to know when choosing a WordPress Theme based upon the Default Theme style.
From these two designs come a myriad catalog of all kinds of shapes, sizes, colors, and gizmos that make each Theme unique from the others. Background images, uses of color and fonts, and lots of tweaks go into designing these. And the really experienced web page designers will break these molds and you can also find Themes based upon neither basic design but unique in and of themselves. You will have to explore these thoroughly to see how they change across the different views.
In general, websites feature some standard layouts. Which layout you choose is based upon your needs, imagination, and potential inclusion of additional features like feeds and advertising in additional columns. Here are some of the standard layouts:
- Single Column
- While not as common as they once were, single column layouts are simple a single column of text that runs down the page without a sidebar or second “column”. These tend to harken back to the early days of web page design, but if you want a very minimalist look with content, then a single column layout might work for you.
- Two Column (no sidebar)
- The two column layout that doesn’t feature a sidebar but does feature two evenly balanced columns running down the page is the two column layout. It most resembled the newsletter or newspaper look of old and is also good for simplistic sites or sites that require a column for content and a second one for feeds, ads, and other highlighted information in the second column.
- Two Column (with sidebar)
- The two column layout that is most commonly found on the web features a wide column for content and a narrow column, usually designated as the sidebar. The sidebar contains navigation, links, and other highlighted information.
- Three Column
- The three column layout may resembled the 3 column looks of newspapers or newsletters with three even columns, or it may have a wide column for content and then two sidebars. The sidebars typically are on the right and left, though there is a new trend to have two sidebars on one side or the other, with one for navigation and the other for highlighted information and advertising.
- Four Column
- Though rare, the four column layout may feature four evenly spaced columns, or two wider columns and one or two narrow sidebar columns, or the very rare three sidebars with one wider column. These tend to be cluttered looking and they are not usually good for reading content as much as they are for listing long series of links and ads, very abbreviated content.
- Photoblog or Gallery
- The photoblog or gallery layout uses images with little or no textual content throughout the site. Since images make up the content, the layout usually features either a single column layout or a two column layout that features a wide content area for the image and a sidebar for navigation. The multi-post view of the photoblog or gallery typically features thumbnail images for the visitor to explore and click, taking them to the larger view of the image in the single post view.
Content Matches Theme
While it isn’t a requirement, in general, specific Themes match specific content. When users visit your site or blog, you usually have 10 to 30 seconds to make a good impression, no different than in person. Unfortunately, it is easier to click away than it is to walk away, so you may not get the chance to make a good second impression.
The first thing people want to know when visiting a site is “does this site have the information I want?”. How the site looks may help them to identify the content, matching or unmatching their needs with your site. If the content doesn’t match the Theme, then you may have to work harder to attract readers to your site. No matter how hard we try, there are certain expectations and assumptions made by people totally based on looks. If you want the “look” of your site to draw people in, consider matching the Theme with your site’s content.
Let’s look at some stereotypical styles that reflect standard content.
Political and commentary blogs tend to emulate a clean, newspaper feel, with a white background and columned information. Graphics tend to be sparse, mostly ads, and colors are usually few. The most important emphasis is on the words, because the words sell the point the site is making.
Personal diary or journal blogs, reporting on the life, lifestyle, and day-to-day activities of the author, tend to be very personalized, matching the personality of the author. For some, it may be colorful and cheery, to match their optimistic personality and writing, while others may like the darker, quieter tones. Teenage girls, especially in the Far East, tend towards pink and flowery blogs, often decorated with animated cartoon characters. Teenage boys tend to be darker and more cartoon or Gothic in look. This doesn’t mean that a girl can’t have Gothic-style website or that a boy can’t have a flowery pink website. Anything goes on the web and there is room for anything, but if we’re talking about first impressions, I’ve seen many boys defend their pink, flowery sites when they could be writing about other topics.
Conspiracy theory sites tend to look like ransom notes, cluttered and covered with feeds, news bits, ads, and slogans. A color theme is rarely evident or patriotic in tone, and the “paste-up” look of old newsletters comes to mind when viewing them.
Business blogs are usually toned down and very simple, often complementary of the company logo. They tend to be boxy and feature borders around everything, giving the site a geometric look.
Artistic sites and blogs run the gamut from photoblog and gallery styles with white or black backgrounds acting like a mat board behind the image, or stuffed with color and artwork that explodes or gently paints itself across the web browser canvas.
Writers, those who are just into this for the expression of words and ideas, tend to be minimalists, wanting the feel of a white clean piece of paper, albeit virtual paper, on the page. For them, the words are the pictures and the need for heavy graphics and color only get in the way.
Think about your content subject and what first impression you want your viewers to have when they visit your site. Match the look and feel of the site with the content and viewers will quickly “get the picture” of what information can be found on this site.
Choosing a WordPress Theme
You should by now have some good ideas and notes on what you want, and don’t want, in a WordPress Theme. As you begin the process of finding your Theme options, keep the following in mind:
- Color Doesn’t Matter
- Color on a website is easily changed, so don’t look for the color to sway you when choosing a Theme. Color doesn’t matter. The structure and layout of the site does, as well as the various page views and details they use to make the site look the way it does. Color can be changed later.
- Layout Matters
- We’ve mentioned that Themes based upon the Default Theme do not show a sidebar in the single post view. If you want one, then choose a layout that includes one. Don’t want one, then make sure the Theme hides the sidebar. Want the sidebar on the left or right? Make sure the Theme has the sidebar on the side you want. Changing the position of the sidebar, and making it appear or disappear takes CSS and XHTML skill and expertise. If the structure and architecture of the site doesn’t have what you want, you will have to modify it, and that might be beyond your abilities. Start with a structure that most closely matches your needs, and then you can tweak the colors and details more to your liking.
- Page Views Matter
- Again, if it is important to you whether there is or isn’t a sidebar on the single post view, then look. If your site will be chronological and date-driven, then check out the archives views to make sure the look of the multi-post view for archives matches your needs. Don’t want archives and want to concentrate on having the post categories being the driving force to help people find the information they want on your site, then be sure to inspect the category view. Each generated page view on a WordPress site may be customized in many different ways. Choosing a Theme that has the features you want for the page views you need gets you closer to choosing the right Theme.
- Any Theme is Potentially Your Theme
- Most WordPress Themes are free and under GPL license, which means you can tweak and change them, but it is nice to link back to the original author. This means that any Theme you see is potentially your Theme. You can pick and choose the parts and pieces of the Themes you like and blend them together into your own unique look. Or you can tweak the one you choose to make it match your desires. Look at the layout, structure, page view, and details that you want in your Theme and then customize it to be your own. Or keep it the way it is and be thrilled that you don’t have to do any more work under the hood.
- Can You Look at It for a Year?
- Can you look at this Theme for the next year? Can you live with seeing it day after day? Does it inspire you to contribute content or will you grow tired of it fairly quickly? And if you will, how tired of it will your viewers get? Think they will feel the same after a few visits? If you want them to come back, you better start thinking like them.
The WordPress Theme for my main site, Taking Your Camera on the Road began it’s life as a very simplest, minimal Theme. Just white background, no graphics or artwork, just the sidebar on the left consistently throughout the Theme’s page views with a simple header and footer. From there, I dissected ever part, resizing and reshaping it, molding it into my own desires and imagination. I am still tweaking it, months later to get it just right. There are no other sites like this and the powerful engine of WordPress under the hood allows me to create custom views on the different pages. In a future article, I’ll take you behind the scenes and under the hood for a look behind the power that runs that site.
WordPress Theme Resources
We hope that this will help you to narrow down your WordPress Theme choices. The following are some of the most popular sites for WordPress Themes, though a search of the web will turn up plenty more not on the list.
- WordPress Theme Viewer
- The “official” WordPress Theme List
- Blogging Pro features a whole category of WordPress Themes
- Alex King’s WordPress Theme Competition
There are also many designers who accept payment for their WordPress Theme website designs. You may find them on the WordPress Support Forum, but also try List of Recommended Web Page Designers by Laughing Squid and WordPress Pro Mailing List.
We discussed the design details in your WordPress Theme, and tips for website navigation, and in an upcoming article, we’ll provide more information on how to dissect and customize your WordPress Theme.