The Art of Choosing a Theme

5 June, 2011

3 Themes, 1 Developer

I’m frequently asked for advice about choosing a template for a website or a blog, so here are a few tips and resources that I hope will be helpful. I’ve built several sites for myself using Sandvox and Wordpress — see the list of links at right. Checking those out will give you a sense of how one person uses multiple themes for different sorts of websites. 

FINDING A THEME

Doing a Google search for Wordpress templates can be daunting because there's so much out there, and to be honest, so much of it is of poor quality.  You can do a search, but gird your loins. Or, have a look a few sources I like that will present you with a wide variety of different themes for different platforms, be it blogging or a website:

ThemeForest.net: as I write this article (September 2010) ThemeForest boasts 3,150 site templates and themes, including templates for email newsletters, that sell for between $5 - $40. Envato, the organization that manages it, states that everything posted there has undergone some sort of review "to ensure that they are in good working order and easy to use." It's a marketplace/community that has lots of forums, reviews, support and feedback from other users. One of the things I like about this source is that you can search by simple categories: Blog/Magazine, Creative (for portfolios, photography, art), Corporate (business, marketing), and so on. There are many templates in each category, but it's not overwhelming.

DIY Themes: I bought Thesis from DIY themes and used it to re-design my High Line blog, LivinTheHighLine.com. I've used a lot of themes in the past few years and this is the best and simplest one I've found yet for Wordpress. There's tons of online support from other users and great help documentation. And the people who created it have a sense of humor, which I greatly appreciate when I'm working on the web. (Two examples: the save button is called The Big Ass Save Button and the error page says: "You 404'd it. Gnarly, dude." These guys remind me of MailChimp and their amusing messaging takes the Mickey out of gnarly problems. Dude.) It's not cheap -- $87 for the theme and $77 for the developer option -- but if you're working in Wordpress this is, in my opinion, the best. 

Woo Themes is another great source and like ThemeForest their templates are designed to be flexible and easy to customize, and they're optimized for search engines. They have terrific designs and a wide variety of options.

Best WordPress Themes is a great and constantly updated source of top Wordpress themes, selected for "clean design; flexibility for use with different types of blogs; valid code; and beautiful color schemes." The site presents themes in 1-, 2-, and 3-column templates and you can sort by Free or Premium and by blog, magazine, photo gallery, video, business, portfolio and more.

WordPress.org: the directory of free themes at Wordpress.org is now 1,240. There are many ways to sort. Begin by clicking on the "tag filter and tag interface" link and you'll come to a page that lets you drill down by 14 different colors; columns (up to 4); features; and subjects. Or search by Most Popular; Newest; Recently Updated.

Blueball Design: If you're using Sandvox, the Blueball designs are the premium templates. You can find a directory of free templates (that come with the software) here.

Behind the Rabbit: Another theme provider for Sandvox. They make clean, elegant, themes that will also work on RapidWeaver (an application for Mac OS X) and Wordpress.

SELECTING A THEME

One of the things I love about the open source movement and the advances in do-it-yourself web development is that it's so easy to actually see your work in action. My advice is to comb through the many themes you'll find on the websites listed above and choose a few you like. (Tip: bookmark them because nothing is worse than discovering a great theme and then, several days later, forgetting what it's called and where you found it.) Then set up your hosting account and install Wordpress, Sandvox, Drupal, Squarespace – whatever CMS or design program you're using – and play around by switching the themes in the hosted environment (you can do this privately, without posting to the actual web). Upload some content, including representative images; a few articles or blog posts; install a few widgets or plug-ins. And then look at your content in the actual theme.  You may have to buy a few themes to do a meaningful test. Or, just download a bunch of free themes to get yourself started and understanding how this process works. But there's nothing so helpful as actually seeing your stuff in the template itself.

SPRUCING UP THE THEME

Probably the first thing you'll experience as you view the freshly installed theme with your own content in place is a gasp of disappointment. It looked so good on ThemeForest! Now it's lackluster! One reason for this is that the designers who make these themes use very good (or at least pretty good) photographs in the samples that you click through on the theme sites. If you don't have access to high quality images it's likely that your content will look forlorn by comparison. So you might want to hop over to iStockPhoto.com or Wikimedia Commons to find some cheap or free images that you can use on your website. And you'll probably want to engage a professional designer to create a banner for you. After all, you're getting the theme for free, or for less than $50. A well-designed banner will make a huge difference in the way your site looks, so it's worth considering. (The Author Online contains some advice about how to find a designer you can hire to help you, and there are some links in the Resources section, including to DesignRelated.com.)

As your website expands and deepens with content you may outgrow your original theme, or find it limiting. For example, if you started with a one-column template you might soon find that you need a second or even a third column to accommodate your content and the widgets or plug-ins that you're using. For very little money (or for free) you'll find lots of options in the sources discussed here.

REGISTER YOUR SITE & SIGN UP FOR GOOGLE ANALYTICS

Technically this final piece of advice doesn't concern the art of picking a theme, but it's so important I'm including it anyway. You can read more about it in The Author Online – for example, how to use Analytics as an editorial tool – if you need any convincing. But once you've taken your blog or website live, there are two important steps you should take: 

-  Register your website with all the major search engines.  To register at Google you need to set up an account, which will also give you access to other Google resources like AdWords and Ad Sense.  Go here to get started. To register at Yahoo, follow the directions in this article on ehow.com. To register at Bing, go here.

-  Sign up for Google Analtyics.

If you have any additional tips, resources or insights please email me and I'll update this article.

Good luck with your project!

Annik

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