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Attention WordPress Theme Designers: Designing Themes for WordPressMU

One of the best features of WordPress is the ability to choose from over 300 different WordPress Themes for your site’s layout. You can choose from among a wide range of looks, layouts, and styles, from minimalistic to bombastic. You can have no sidebar or four sidebars. You can have huge header art or no header.

Once you choose a WordPress Theme, most of them are licensed for GPL, which means you can then tweak and twiddle with them to make them suit your needs. Don’t like the colors but like the layout, change the colors. Want the sidebar on the left not the right, move it. Want more space between the title and the post, add it. If you are really into CSS, then you can redesign your own WordPress Theme from scratch.

With WordPressMU, though, that freedom is gone. The main host installs a range of Themes to choose from, and probably takes recommendations, but those are your choices. As far as I am aware right now, the ability to tweak those Themes is left up to the host, not the user.

Is this a good or bad thing? I think it’s a good thing for hosts building a community of uniform sites – everyone’s site looks basically the same or variations on a “theme” to create a consistent look. For those who are opening their doors to a wide range of users with different needs and desires, then the smart hosts will make sure their users have a wide enough selection to choose from.

Which brings me to the most important point: Designing WordPress Themes for WordPressMU.

At the moment, offers only a limited selection of themes to choose from, and the themes are not customizable. This gave me a real problem at first, as most of the themes have bugs or omit critical functionality. After testing out the available themes for the better part of an hour, I finally settled on this one, which doesn’t at all make me happy, or even look the way I’d like, but does have all the functionality working properly. As far as I can tell. For now. Even the prize-winning Connections theme omits the comments template on pages. In contrast, my WordPress 1.6 site lets me install any theme I want, customize the theme, and do whatever I need to do in order to have my blog look, feel and act exactly as I want it to.
Michael Hampton’s Lunacy Unleashed

Designing WordPress Themes for WordPressMU

Designing Themes for WordPress is pretty wide open since each Theme is a self-contained package. The files and styles are all there, and little else is needed – to a point. The rest is up to the user to tweak with. With WordPressMU, the options are limited to choices, not tweakability. Therefore, WordPress Themes for WordPressMU need to be:

  • Self-contained
  • Ready with everything the user needs
  • Require no fixing or adjusting
  • Validated and tested

This puts some new burdens on WordPress Theme designers.

WordPress Theme contests earlier this year helped create a good reference on the WordPress Codex called Designing Themes for Public Release. Here is a quick review of the points it makes, and how they apply to WordPressMU.

Keep The Core References
For WordPressMU, key core structural references like header, title, content, sidebar and such should probably stay the same just for continuity, but keeping the structure the same isn’t as critical since the Theme itself is a package deal. Changes to the template files, template tags, and CSS to change the structure are fine, as long as the Theme works and passes all the tests.
No Plugins
While things may change in the future, Themes for WordPressMU must work without the use of WordPress plugins. Plugins need to be added by the host, therefore they must also control the addition of any template file modifications. For now, consider there will be no plugins. This doesn’t preclude the use of built-in PHP code and scripts that may run some plugins or PHP effects as part of the Theme. Though, such inclusion will require testing and security checks to make sure the script does what it’s supposed to and doesn’t do harm or open the site up to security risks. This is an area that needs exploring and guidelines established.
Style ALL the Template Files
This still holds with WordPressMU. All page views must be designed including single post view for posts and Page, as well as multiple post views for front page, search, categories, and archives.
Style Sheet Structure
Since the user will not “see” or modify the style sheet, the structure of the style sheet isn’t important. It can be alphabetical or by structure. Still, it must be clean, valid, and have some easy to read structure, if even for good practice standards.
Consider the Details
The details in a WordPress Theme make all the difference. Pay close attention to details like the use of graphics between posts or the bullets in the sidebar. Make sure that all the little elements add to the overall and consistent look of Theme. It needs to look cohesive in all its forms and page views, and it needs to look “finished”.
Consistent and Standard Fonts
All WordPress Themes need to be designed with the most common fonts available on the web, including backup choices. With WordPressMU, this is even more important. Users will have a wide range of computers, operating systems, and browsers and the font choices need to be among the most popular fonts on the web.
Comment Comment Comment
Comments in templates and the style sheet aren’t as critical with WordPressMU themes, but I still highly recommend Theme authors include them to help anyone updating, fixing, or making minor changes to the Theme.
Lean and Mean CSS Style Sheet
Keeping a clean and lean style sheet and template files is important no matter what WordPress version the Theme is designed for. It helps everyone to have a fast loading style sheet and template files.
Validate! Validate! Validate!
WordPressMU users won’t have the ability to change any validation or browser bugs in their Theme, so it becomes even more critical that Themes for WordPressMU get put through the testing phase extensively, making sure they validate in both CSS and HTML/XHTML. They also need to be tested across multiple browsers, and through all of the page views. Many people test only the front page view and the single post view, but make sure that ALL page views are thoroughly tested and validated before release.
CSS and HTML Bugs
While browsers are still playing games with CSS and website designers continue to add hacks to force CSS to work different ways for different browsers, it’s important that the WordPress Theme designer still focus on making their Themes be as hack-free as possible while still working across the widest spectrum of systems and browsers. This doesn’t mean the design should not include CSS hacks, just take extreme care with them and make sure they are tested and validated.

There are some additional features that need to be taken into consideration when designing WordPress Themes for WordPressMU use. Again, the difference is that in WordPress, the user can make changes to a Theme, but in WordPressMU, they can’t. This puts a different twist on designing Themes for WordPressMU.

Style All Standard HTML Tags

The only place the user in WordPressMU can add style in their site is inside their posts. This means the Theme author needs to consider all the common tags a user may use inside of a post’s content and make sure that each one is styled.

Here is a list of some of the most common HTML tags a user may use. Style them to match the Theme.

  • UL/LI – to at least three levels down
  • OL/LI – at least 2 levels down
  • DL/DT/DD
  • BLOCKQUOTE with possibly CITE
  • CODE
  • H3, H4, H5
  • PRE
  • HR
  • B and STRONG
  • U
  • I and EM
  • ABBR

Some additional ones to consider are occasionally used for assigning font sizes to SMALL, MEDIUM, LARGE, BIG, and X-LARGE tags. Think of the various tag you may use in a post and make sure that those are included. Specific classes or divisions won’t work, since there are no instructions to help the user add those. If they want them, they can add inline styles.

Headings also play an important role as they may be used for post content sections. The H1, H2, and/or H3 are usually used within the template files for the header, title, and sidebar headings. The rest of the headings tags, H3, H4 and H5, should be styled to fit within the content and paragraphs to match the look of the Theme.

You can add any other tags to the Theme’s style sheet. The user may not know they are there, but if they use them, they will be styled to match the overall look of the Theme.

Use Template Tags Not Placeholders

Many Theme authors use placeholders to represent links to specific Pages in the header, sidebar, and/or footer for Pages like About, Contact, and Copyright. Since the physical Page hasn’t been created, then the placeholder sits in the template file with a # in the link waiting for the user to edit the template file and replace the link with one to the correct Page.

In WordPressMU, the user is unable to access the template file. Most WordPressMU Themes come with an About Page set up as an example, but additional Pages may be added by the user.

With this inability to change the template file, the Theme author needs to take this into consideration when designing their Theme. If a user adds 12 Pages to their site and the look of these links will interfere with the Theme’s layout and design, it’s something to think about.

This isn’t such a bad thing, but it does complicate things a little. For Pages, consider setting the template tag to list “parent” pages, allowing subpages to be used to add Pages not seen on a main menu. The user would have to experiment and discover this on their own and make adjustments to their Page structure accordingly, but it would allow the use of a design element like a horizontal menu in the header:

<?php wp_list_pages('sort_column=menu_order&depth=1'); ?>

The use of the following template tags come into play when designing a Theme with menus and flexible lists and the Theme author needs to consider all the ways a user may use them as part of their design:

Experiment with different template tags to create different looks, keeping in mind all the ways people use WordPress Pages, categories, links, and archives.

Also, consider adding a flexible category template, such as the example in Category Templates: Replacing Multiple Category Templates with One. This allows for the category description template tag to be used to create custom content on category pages. It also means that the category description template tag cannot be used inside of category links for the link title – but it’s a small price to pay for custom category pages the user can control without access to the template files.

The “one-size-fits-all” category template is merely an example of what is possible when it comes to messing around with the WordPress Loop, conditional tags, and queries. This kind of creativity makes it even more challenging and fun for the Theme author for WordPressMU Themes. You are free to design a wide range of template pages within your Theme, even adding manual links to site map Pages and custom archives. Designing a Theme for WordPressMU is not just about the CSS but now, it’s about template files, PHP and whole package.

Benefits of Designing a Theme for WordPressMU

There is a joy in designing a WordPress Theme and then seeing it appear on websites around the world. It’s like a little piece of you is being enjoyed by hundreds or thousands of users and viewers. It can be quite the thrill.

It is also your work and it’s free. The only payback is that your name may stay with the Theme and someone somewhere may find out you designed the Theme and contact you for a paying job to design their own site. It happens, more frequently than you would imagine, so designing WordPress Themes is great PR for your skills, as well as practice.

Designing a Theme for WordPressMU is even better. All the Themes I’ve seen used feature the Theme Author/Designer’s name and link to their site in the footer. I can’t think of a better business card or advertisement of your skills than a WordPress Theme that links directly to you.

There is also an added benefit. WordPressMU is not just for free websites. It is also for the corporate user. They may have an in-house design team, but the odds are that they don’t, and they will look through the available Themes as examples of what is possible, and maybe look into hiring those who create Themes that attract their attention. It’s happened before!

This makes designing Themes for WordPressMU even more important, covering all the bases so the host doesn’t have to mess with the Theme after uploading, and the users get a solid and yet versatile website design. If you are considering your Themes your calling card, they better be the best you have to offer.

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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, member of the 9Rules Network

Member of the 9Rules Blogging Network


  1. Posted September 20, 2005 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Great points made, but all beg the fundamental question:

    Is it better to (a) allow or (b) not allow a user to customize their theme/templates?

    (a) Allowing users to customize their theme means they could possibly break it – not good for support.

    (b) Not allowing users this degree of customization means all sites look the same – not good for something so personal and individualized as blogging.

  2. Posted September 20, 2005 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Good question, Jefte. And one that is being widely debated.

    Reality is, technology through plugins will allow some customizability of WordPress Themes within WordPressMU environments. Options may include changing the header with a provided or uploaded image, changing sidebar positioning, etc.

    As for mono-styled sites, there are currently almost 400 Themes to choose from. Any of these can easily be converted into WordPressMU compatible Themes. And as stated in the article, designing Themes for just MU is also possible, broading the range of Themes available. While some people will choose the same theme design (note all the usage of Kubrick/Default), then that’s a choice of the user not a lack of Theme choices.

    There is also the issue of similarity for sites that desire a “community” look. A corporation might want all the blogs to have a uniform look. One look, one brand.

    I believe some measure of customizability will happen with MU sites, controllable by the host.

    There is also a new feature in the works that will allow hooking plugins directly into Themes so the Theme author can design around plugins and include them in the Theme, adding even more power and features to a Theme.

    This means a WordPress Theme may be chosen based on the plugin options available as much or instead of the design. The options are getting wider now for Theme authors and users. Wow!

  3. bf2blog
    Posted September 21, 2005 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Community brands don’t work for blogs. Blogger used to be uniform, now even Blogger sites are becoming unrecognizable as such.

    I’m aware of theme functions, and all the plugins in the world don’t amount to anything if the host controls what plugins and themes are installed.

    I was totally jazzed to see offering hosted WordPress blogs… then ultimately dismayed that it does not allow someone completly unfamiliar to start enjoying WordPress at a touch of a button – without needing to install and configure it. Instant access to the world of WordPress and all its wicked functionality, plugins and themes.

    Isn’t that really what makes WordPress such a great package?

  4. Posted September 21, 2005 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    What makes WordPress a great package is its simplicity and ease for the user. Sure, the benefits of the full version is to tweak it to death. But a lot of people are intimidated by all that tweaking. The concept of changing the name of their blog is “hard”, when it is and always has been controlled by an option in the Administation Panels, but many think they have to dig into the template files to change it. WordPressMU sites like take away the intimidation.

    The whole point of is for users who are completely unfamiliar with WordPress to test drive and get a good taste of how it works and what its potential is. Users can grow up with and grow into the full WordPress version.

    And community branding blogs can work if the corporation wants to create an identity. For example, REI announced a few months ago that it was going to start offering store blogs to help keep employees and other stores up-to-date on each other’s activities and events. I’m sure these kind of blogs will not be individualized.

    Still, there is a lot of great things to be said about the potential of WordPressMU. Luckily, there are choices for WordPress users.

  5. Posted September 22, 2005 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    Why not allow plugins to be installed, themes customized etc in an “advanced” section of the admin panel for those courageous enough to venture a gander? Power users would get the features that makes wordpress so extendible, and novice users wouldn’t bother to mess with scary “advanced” options.

    “The whole point of is for users who are completely unfamiliar with WordPress to test drive and get a good taste of how it works and what its potential is.”

    Is stripping out these core functionalities truely a fair taste of WP’s real potential?

  6. Posted September 22, 2005 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    For hosts and companies which want to provide low stress, no fuss blogging opportunities, WordPressMu is great. Some options for customization and individualizing Themes with plugins and other featues will come with time.

    For people who want to control everything, then there is the full version of WordPress.

    There is no stripping out of anything, only controlling what users can do. Hmmm, do you need to eat the whole meal to really judge a taste test?

  7. Posted September 26, 2005 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I like fruit cups. I don’t like fruit cups with the moniker “Lite” on them. I don’t like the syrup.

    So yes, giving an alternative to the original – while great for fruit cup eaters on the whole – only provides further brand dissolution and confusion.

    Just gimmie my fruit cup!

  8. Posted October 23, 2005 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I have no problem with selecting from a list of canned themes with respect to the simplicity of WordPressMU, but it is a difficult decision when the limited selection of themes you have is riddled with bugs. E.g. it is a little embarrassing to use the WordPress 1.5 default which throws a Meta category with Valid XHTML proudly displaying that the main page has 4 errors (all in template code) and doesn’t even validate XHTML Transitional. So you’re left with compromise.

  9. Posted October 23, 2005 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    True. Again, remember that is alphaware, so the limited choices in Themes is to help the developers work in a controlled environment. As for the Themes we do have to chose from, I’m in total agreement.

    If you can track down the error, please submit specifics (and a recommended fix if you know it) to the developers through the FEEDBACK link in your admin panels. Hopefully they will be able to clean the Theme up.

    I’m hoping that more people will see the value in producing solid WordPress Themes for MU as they do get a lot of exposure. And I hope they take our advice.

  10. Posted February 27, 2006 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Hey Lorelle,

    Great post as always! I haven’t installed WordPress MU yet, but is it pretty much the same as what one would get with or WP 2.0 as far as having the new panel for Theme Options?

    If so, you might want to consider updating this post to emphasize that theme designers can allow for some easy customizability by the user through the use of the Theme Options and that the best themes will make extensive use of this new and wonderful funcitonality.

    Keep up the fantastic work – you are by far one of the most informative bloggers out there and are an irreplacable part of the wordpress community!!

    smiles and hugs –

  11. Posted February 27, 2006 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the kind words, Emily, but I know that YOU are one of the most informative bloggers out there! And irreplaceable for sure.

    As for the new Theme Options, I’m waiting for the dust to settle in how this all works. It’s brand new stuff. I’ll add info on that when it’s available.

    Don’t forget that WordPressMU isn’t for the normal, or even abnormal, blogger or webber. It is especially designed for hosts who want to set up blogging accounts for users.

    Either way, Themes play an important part and since the user can’t edit the Theme, it’s even more critical than ever that Themes have all the bugs and details straightened out to avoid complaining users. It’s good practice, too.

  12. Posted May 15, 2006 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Hi thanx for this great article ..

    i design themes .. but it`s seems good on my LocalHost..
    But online dead ..using the same browser :S – Firefox –
    i didn`t know what`s the prob.
    wish u help me out :S


  13. Posted May 15, 2006 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Without something more specific, I can’t give a specific answer. It is jam packed with validation errors that have to be fixed, but most of these are just careless errors.

    I’m currently traveling and not available for individual consultation, so unless you give me a specific issue I can address here, I recommend you ask for review and help from the WordPress Support Forums in their Review/Your WordPress section.

  14. Posted June 4, 2006 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I notice you mentioned that themes at are not customisable once you have selected them.

    One popular blogging host that uses WordPress MU is and users have full control over customising their blogs. Worth checking out if you’ve not heard of it.

  15. Posted June 4, 2006 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    This article was written before WordPress announced WordPress Widgets. And still the article applies. There are some things you can change, but you cannot dig into the PHP code, template files, template tags, or style sheet to change details. For example, this particular WordPress Theme I’m currently using, Rubric by Hadley Wickham, has a boring blockquote. In fact, it isn’t styled at all. All it does is indent, the default style for blockquote. I would LOVE to dig in and add some quote marks, a border, background color, or something. I’d just love to change the font size. But in WordPressMU sites, like, I don’t believe you can unless the blog service has somehow unlocked each individual’s access to their Themes. Have they?

  16. Posted July 26, 2006 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Just adding some info for you, Lorelle, from a WPMU hosts’ perspective. The theme editor hasn’t been unlocked yet for MU and probably won’t be unelss someone writes a nifty plugin so at least the admin can edit themes without going into the server directly. The way it is set up is all users share a particular theme. Make a change directly to the template and it affects all users with that template. Some of us are getting around that by adding a Theme Options page to either new themes or existing themes. Ohz’s popular theme options functions doesn’t work well in MU, so we’re left developing our own. You are probably well aware of the developer’s reluctance to let any MU user have access to the stylesheet – it could be a security nightmare.

  17. Posted October 24, 2006 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi I am Henry, and I am interested in designing themes for WordPress-MU, But I still dont get the whole thing.
    For example check this wp-theme that I made: Its name is Loreley,

    Do you think that it has every thing required to make it for WordPress-Mu, if not.. What does it need?
    I’ll appreciate your time

  18. Posted October 24, 2006 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand what you don’t get. You have to be more specific.

    Nice Theme. I only took a quick glance as I’m traveling. First, you can’t have “All Rights Reserved” in the copyright notice and then make it GPL. Conflict. And you can’t make it GPL and then say “you can’t change the footer”. Guess what? They’ll change it any way. WordPress Themes, generally, are free for whatever messing around people want to do. If not, you need to change the copyright to something else.

    Second, while the site validates, and I love that you took accessibility issues into account, you are missing all the design details people use in their post content areas, which is why I wrote WordPress Theme Designers: Slapping You Upside the Head and Designing Themes for WordPressMU – Fill In All The Details. Every i, b, dl, dd, em, strong, blockquotes, lists within blockquotes, etc., needs to be defined. The numbered and unnumbered lists in the post content and comment areas also needs to be defined, not just the lists that make up the comments.

    Go through the list of related articles I’ve now added to this article and make sure you’ve covered every base and that the WordPress Theme will easily handle WordPress Widgets, and you’ll do fine when you submit it for consideration. Do a lot of testing on it first, including tests on IE7.

    Oh, and change the sidebar titles. They aren’t clear. Pages are Pages or “Site Information” and Categories are Categories and Staff Area sounds like something too corporate, hospital, or educational. The titles on the sidebar are permanent and can’t be changed by WordPressMU bloggers, so make them something versatile.

    Also, make sure all of those titles and everything in the Theme meets the localization/translation needs for WordPress so the Theme can be used by anyone in any language. Check the WordPress Codex for more specifics on that.

    Good luck with it and thanks for asking.

  19. Posted April 7, 2007 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Do you think “Use Template Tags Not Placeholders” is ok. I will rather use my own styles.

  20. Posted June 14, 2007 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Yet another great post Lorelle, I never fail to be impressed when reading your blog. well done

  21. Posted August 16, 2007 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    as one of the newbies was designed for, what i would like (and believe amny others would as well) is to have a good base of solid preconfigured widgets. have the standard technorati, diggit, etc.. buttons. have an email rss link
    tags – maybe a tag cloud
    site stats
    and then let users delete what they dont want, this way – you extend the standard platform to the ‘masses’. hope this serves a purpose

    BTW Lorelle – like the site – slowly starting to digest blogging 101

    if anyone cares to give me a hand – I have some questions regarding what I would like to do on my blog,
    drop by and leave me a note – because I dont know how to trackback right now


  22. Posted August 16, 2007 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    A trackback is created when you blog about a blog post on another blog, and WordPress automatically sends a trackback to the other blog post. There is nothing you have to “do”.

    Giving users of your blog control over what they want and don’t want to see is a nice idea that has failed dramatically over the years. Users want information and interaction. They don’t want to mess with your blog looks.

    As for the widgets, there are hundreds and hundreds of different widgets you can choose from for full version WordPress blogs. has a lot, but it’s a small number with more being added all the time.

    Good luck in your search.

  23. Posted November 15, 2007 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    I’ve been searching for a half-decent theme designer for ages. My myspace profile has been bland ever since I got it while everybody elses shines and glimmers, leaving me in the dust. Now that I’m getting the use out of wordpress I won’t let my myspace mishap happen again! This sounds like the ideal designing programme and I can’t wait to get my teeth into it!

  24. Posted January 10, 2008 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    Hello, I am a newbie in blogging, and I don’t know anything about HTML or PHP. But I am happy with WordPress, I was able to setup my own WordPress MU (on my own). I know you guys out there are GURUS to this. Happy blogging!

  25. Posted March 7, 2008 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    Designing Themes for WordPressMU explains nicely the details

  26. Posted October 22, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Several key findings from the research literature can be combined to create an alternative to psychiatric diagnosis that is not only more empirically sound, but also better suited to the nature and practice of psychotherapy. ,

  27. fifty50
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    I know this is an old post, but have things improved now is WordPress MU the way to go, or should I go for with a WordPress blog hosted elsewhere or even go for my own hosted blog. There are so many fantastic themes out there. I don’t want to find I have no real choice.

    Many Thanks

    • Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Any WordPress Theme can work on WordPressMU which is now known as WordPress MS (Multisite). The decision to use WordPress MS has nothing to do with Themes. It is a bigger responsibility and purpose to provide multiple websites within a company or for a group. It is not for the casual user.

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