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WordPress Themes – Do You Want Someone Messing Around With Your Theme?

WordPress ThemesThere is a lot of excitement over the new trend in WordPress Themes which allows some form of customization by the user. This is enhanced by the new WordPress Widgets, the ability to accessorize and change your sidebar in some WordPress Themes on and with a WordPress Plugin for full version WordPress blogs.

This growing freedom for the WordPress blogger to manipulate and change a WordPress Theme got me thinking. It led in two directions. One, how exciting and wonderful this is for the user, to be able to have some creative control over the look, navigation, graphics, and content elements of their Themes. Two, how tough it will be for many WordPress Theme designers to give up control of their designs, and how willing they will be to see their Themes changed.

Those thrilled with whizzbang gimmicks will thrive on making their WordPress Themes embrace the new customization features. They will play around to make sure the Theme’s design will still hold up even if you change the header art, add too few or too many links and feeds in the sidebar, and be able to handle link lists, search, and other core elements added to the header or removed from the header. For them, it will be all about the challenge of the gimmicks, with the design elements coming in second or third to functionality.

Those who fuss and fidget with every design element in a WordPress Theme might have some problems with this. For them, designing a WordPress Theme is personal. It is not only a reflection of their expertise in web design, it is a reflection of themselves, their personality, their thoughts, their creativity, their personal expression. These are the folks who may have a hard time giving up control of their artwork in exchange for the user’s self expression.

As a freelance web designer, the amount the client could change the design and layout of the site without consultation (and compensation) with me was controlled. After all, it is my design, and I wanted to continue making money from changes and maintenance of the design. Standard business procedure.

WordPress Themes are available to you are free. For the most part, they are released under a license which may give you permission to make changes. Still, they are designed by amateurs and semi-professionals. Commercial website designers aren’t in the business of handing out web designs for free, except as a marketing ploy. This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the hundreds of WordPress Theme designs available. It’s just a fact.

Still, the amount of work some people put into their web designs for WordPress is amazing. They examine every detail, they push and pull at the layout, testing it thoroughly through the different browsers, validators, and computers, learning as they go and testing the knowledge they had before they started. The development of a WordPress Theme is treated much like professional web designer efforts.

If you are one of these WordPress Theme designers, how willing are you to give up your artistic expression to embrace the new customization features of WordPress? How will you feel when you see your Theme changed? Yes, I know that most WordPress Themes are released under the the license that they are free to use and free to change right now, so how does it make you feel when you recognize your Theme but see people have changed it?

How will this new technology for easy customization change your design efforts or thought process? Will it change how you design web pages? What do you think about it? How much control do you think the user should have over changing your WordPress Theme?

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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, member of the 9Rules Network Feed on Lorelle on WordPress Subscribe

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  1. Posted April 7, 2006 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Good question, Lorelle. Not only the artistic appeal but also the technical merits of a theme are at risk when it is opened up for widgets. But let’s face it: many people (I won’t say “anybody”) are capable of modifying any GPL theme for widgets. It’s just easy enough that there’s really no stopping it. The best we can do is develop guidelines and encourage their adoption throughout the community.

    When designing widgets, a developer should take care to write responsible markup. The more themes and widgets there are, the more chances you’ll have a “widget-ready” theme that break horribly because it wasn’t designed with a particular widget in mind.

    Until now, theme developers didn’t have to worry much about such contingencies outside of posts. If somebody posted a picture that was wide enough to break the theme, they could fix it. Fixing a widget that’s too wide for a sidebar is a whole other degree of complexity.

    Another example of unhandled contingencies is the empty widget title. Many themes are built assuming there will be exactly one line of text in each sidebar heading. Who should fix it when too much or too little text in a heading breaks the sidebar?

    The WordPress Widgets API is stable but it isn’t done. I need to know what works and what doesn’t, both from widget developers and theme designers. Send email to “widgets” at when you have trouble and we’ll work something out. Soon we should have enough feedback to determine a set of best practices for themes and widgets so that neither is overburdened or abused.

  2. Posted April 7, 2006 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Andy, oh, great Widget Wonder, I’m glad that you and others are keeping on top of this. The ability to break a Theme with Widgets is clearly a major problem that I can easily see flooding the Support Forums. There needs to be a Widget section in the Forum now. 😉

    I’ll be watching and let me know when some good standards and practices come out. We’ll let the world know that while these gizmos are great fun, they also have some rules attached. Not to restrict but to benefit all.

  3. Posted April 7, 2006 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    From the web design point of view I think that whilst you (the designer) put in so much effort to get it looking exactly how you want it, what’s to stop the end user changing the design (or theme) to suit their demands anyway?

    I know that most end users don’t understand a p tag from a url, but with a little (dangerous) knowledge they could change the theme or site anyway. I know that I do this regularly with WP themes to tweak little things I don’t like. Indeed I did this on my current theme on my main site to change the category display.

    At least if widgets are enabled then (to an extent) you are still able to control what the user can or can’t change in their design.

    For me? I would prefer (at the moment!) to get down and dirty with the code for a theme. I have so much more control than via the widgets. Yes, eventually I may change to a widget enabled theme, but, for the moment at least I can’t see the point.

    BTW I don’t know if it’s an IE thing but the comment box for this theme is sat under the sidebar…

  4. Posted April 7, 2006 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Hi Lorelle,

    This is one interesting post, where you have a valid point.

    I don’t think you know me, but I took Patricia’s Connections and superenhanced it into Connections Reloaded (with her permission of course).

    Many users have shifted to CR because of the functionality it offered. To give this ofcourse I spent a great deal of time testing on different browsers, OSes and checking for perfect compatibility and validity. Incidently this is the only theme I have made so far!

    I plan on adding Widget support, because some have asked for it and I remember reading that if they ask for it, they like it and want to continue using your theme.

    I am of the opinion that if you give them widget support, you are in a way actually restricting how much they are going to hack or modify your theme. Mainly because it would be a lot easier to just put what you want into the sidebar than go through lines of code.
    And hopefully, they won’t go down and remove the credit line!

    I think it is worth the move to using Widgets. Ofcourse I will know I am right/wrong after I release the modified theme.
    I’m a bit disappointed I won’t be able to support WP1.5 😦

  5. Posted April 8, 2006 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    The first thing I do when I DL a theme is tweak it, prolly the main reason I even use WP and I’m sure I’m not the only one that thinks that.

    I noticed a few days ago in my log that my theme author came by for a silent visit. I’ve tweaked the hell out of his theme, not because I didn’t like it, but because it is always gonna be a WIP (work-in-progress) and that’s just how it is, both with me learing new things, new techniques to do something coming out, and just plain old “wanna try something a little different”.

    If people are gonna get upset that “their” themes are being modified, maybe they shouldn’t “waste their time” doing work for free. Not only did I appreciate the originality of my theme authors taste, but I gained even more respect for him when not voicing any distaste he may have had with me editing his creation. I chalk it up to nature of the beast, what is there to talk about? YMMV

  6. Posted April 11, 2006 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    My personal answer to your question is yes, I do expect people to alter my themes. I’m shocked occasionally by some of the radical transformations that take place when someone customizes one of my themes. But I’m no coder, nor a programmer. If I wouldn’t have fiddled around with the themes of others, I wouldn’t be able to produce my own now.

    And for me, it’s a hobby. As I work on a couple new themes, I’ve been wondering about the WP 2.0 functions I’ve added. These embed some styles into the functions.php file, which aren’t easily accessed. And while I am making it easy through the functions.php to alter the theme superficially, I wonder if I will get to see the bizarre modifications with certain elements in tough to get at places.

  7. Posted April 12, 2006 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Very interesting post. I have only just started making my own themes, and for me I love to see people using my themes on their blogs. I do however see your point, but it isn’t one I am faced with.

  8. Posted April 19, 2006 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    honestly, i just can’t see this as a problem. most themes aren’t just free, they’re open-source and CC-licensed. it’s partly the nature of the WP1.5 and 2.0 theme competitions. it’s partly the nature of the community. any idiot with a text editor or photoshop can make a real mess of my theme. in turn, i made a mess of the connections theme.

    widgets, on the other hand, with the exception of the non-API-compliant blogroll widget, can’t break my theme. i tell them how to look. if anyone thinks that the order of the calendar, archives, and blogroll is integral to their theme, i’m revoking their designer license. a garish post does more to mess up a theme.

  9. Posted April 25, 2006 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    You write:

    “Commercial website designers aren’t in the business of handing out web designs for free, except as a marketing ploy.”

    You are wrong, way wrong there. I am a professional designer since a few years back, and my everyday work consists of building a whole lot of custom designs and WordPress themes for different kinds of clients. But I still release high-quality website templates and WordPress themes for free, and it is definitely not any marketing ploy. I can’t deny that free themes and free website templates are good marketing, but that doesn’t make it a purpose. I have more work than I can handle already, and I’m still spending a few hours of my spare time every day on supporting the open source design phenomenon and the wordpress theme scene.

    In case you don’t know it already, many of the most popular WordPress themes are based on open source website templates from sites like and – and there are many professional designers who (just like me) release free templates on those sites. Many of these templates are ported into WordPress themes, sometimes within a day after the release. My own templates have been turned into themes – not only for WP but for most open source blogs and content management systems. Two of the themes, WP-Andreas09 by Ainslie Johnson and Andreas04 by Tara Aukerman, have been added to I keep on answering questions and requests from users on my spare time – despite the fact that I don’t make a cent from it. Please don’t degrade that to being a “marketing ploy”…

    I give away free designs and free themes to give something back to the community – and since it is really fun to take part in the development of the blogging world. I can’t answer for everyone else, but I know a whole lot of professional designers who do the same.

  10. Posted June 1, 2006 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I wrote a post on the subject recently. We ran into this a lot with Tarski – people wanting to do unexpected things with it.

    We decided it’s better to help ’em out than to resist it. It’ll certainly happen whether we want to or not, so why not make it easy and get some goodwill out of it?

  11. Posted July 7, 2006 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    You know… As a web designer you already have to cringe at the things clients do with your designs. You design it one way, code it perfectly, give the client guidelines, and three days later you visit the site and the client has put a humongous purple image where the guidelines clearly said it wouldn’t fit. It’s just the way it is.

    I have recently decided to design and develop a free WordPress theme by my strict standards. I am currently requesting initial input from users. I intend to test the theme with the current available widgets, and as with any other piece of work I do, the theme will be tested to death in different browsers and both in Windows, and Macintosh.

    People will attempt to customize it, and they will ruin it, but it will be THEIRS. It will reflect who they are and what they like. That’s what a blog or personal site is supposed to be. So… just like with clients, I’ll see the modified theme, sometimes I’ll cringe at it, some times I’ll be pleased. What’s important is that I want to offer my skills to add some value.

    Particularly in I see a lack for selection of themes that are nicely designed + usable + work in several browser environments – all three things. My challenge is to create a product that meets this three requirements, and that accounts for the fact that content is DYNAMIC. I’m thrilled at tackling the work ahead. It’s what I love to do, and you know… as a freelancer I get plenty of down time. I like to use that time wisely.

  12. Posted August 1, 2006 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    It doesn’t bother me at all to see people screwing around with my theme. More often than not, though, I think what they do to it resemles a bad nightmare but I never pass judgment (publicly.) The only thing that pisses me off is when someone screws with my theme and then removes all references that I was the one who made it when they put their tweaked unsleepable theme up on a theme viewer…essentially communicating that it’s their own design. That really torques me. But as for whether or not I feel some sort of connection to my theme? No.

  13. Posted August 13, 2006 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Is there a site providing simple/easy directions to set up WordPress to function as website creation software which creates a completely static website?

  14. Posted August 14, 2006 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Completely static pages? That’s old thinking. I recommend you don’t use WordPress but use one of the old fashioned web page makers.

    If you still want to use WordPress, then you need HTML/XHMTL/PHP/CSS expertise. The answer to the “easy” part is no. I spent months converting mine from non-static to php generated because it’s worth it and almost harmful to go completely static nowadays.

    For the hard part of doing this, try these to get your started: Integrating WordPress with Your Website and Creating a Static Front Page.

  15. Posted February 18, 2007 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    I’ve never used a theme that I didn’t mess around with. I don’t use widgets either, so I don’t see why this is being posed as a new debate. Why wouldn’t someone customize a theme a little. It’s not like the formatting of the PHP is in some foreign language or something. Besides, even if someone doesn’t have ANY knowledge to tinker w/ the code, what’s to stop them from altering images?

10 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Yet again Lorelle has been busy writing on her blog. This time she has written a post about the direction WordPress themes has taken – the increasing user customizing possibilities. The big question in the end of the post is If you are one of these WordPress Theme designers, how willing are you to give up your artistic expression to embrace the new customization features of WordPress? How will you feel when you see your Theme changed? – join the discussion on her web site! […]

  2. […] The bad news? While coding up a widget isn’t rocket science, it’s beyond the PHP skill level of most theme designers. (Those who want end-users customizing their themes, that is.) […]

  3. […] Lorelle asks if we want people messing around with our themes. Certainly the time is right to ask questions along these lines, but that particular question is just silly. It doesn’t matter whether theme designers want people messing around with their themes or not, because if they’ve released them for public use, they will get messed around with. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t want that to happen, don’t release your theme. Not too hard to get your head round, is it? […]

  4. […] not a fact, and baldly stating that it is makes you look somewhat foolish. Andreas Viklund responds as follows in the comment thread, and I find myself very much in agreement with his sentiments. I […]

  5. […] WordPress Themes – Do You Want Someone Messing Around With Your Theme? […]

  6. […] WordPress Themes – Do You Want Someone Messing Around With Your Theme? […]

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  8. […] WordPress Themes – Do You Want Someone Messing Around With Your Theme? […]

  9. […] WordPress Themes – Do You Want Someone Messing Around With Your Theme? […]

  10. […] little ethical debates in the WordPress Community. In 2006, there was a great deal of concern over WordPress Widgets and giving control of the sidebar to the user, thus breaking the WordPress Theme the designer so carefully developed. Freedom won, and now you […]

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