A WordPress Theme is like an outfit for your WordPress blog – it contains information that tells WordPress how your website should appear and function for visitors. Besides your content, your Theme is what makes your blog unique and special.
Technically speaking you have to have a theme – without it your blog would be invisible. When WordPress is installed it comes with a standard built in Theme. You can add more Themes to your WordPress installation and decide “which one you want to wear”.
What’s in a Theme?
A WordPress Theme usually contains: (1) Templates that that say what content should be displayed on your web-pages; (2) CSS files that indicate how that information should be visually presented together with Images that may be needed/used to decorate your web-pages.
There can be numerous templates in a theme – each one describes a different usage. For example:
- What should be displayed when a list of recent posts is displayed? For example – for each post display: Title, Date & Time published, Excerpt, A link to a page where the entire post is displayed..
- What should be displayed when a single post is displayed? For example: Title, Date & Time published, Categories, Content (the body of the post), A comment entry form, Existing comments, Links to previous and next posts.
- What should be displayed when a category archive list is displayed? For example: Title, Date & time published.
These are just examples. But they go to show that there are plenty of options available in deciding what information is displayed in different situations. There are many standard templates so you don’t have to make all these choices – but you can.
CSS files are used to describe the looks of your website. They can be used to affect how things are arranged on the screen, colors, typography, etc. Images can be used to build and decorate your web-pages. Some images are used in an obvious way – such as your logo or header (at the top of every page). Other images are used by designers to achieve graphic affects for backgrounds or filling large areas.
Template building requires some programming skills and a familiarity with the internals of WordPress. CSS files & Images are usually created by designers who specialize in web-design. Creating a WordPress Theme requires a combination of programming & design skills.
Ready-made WordPress Themes
The most straightforward and inviting way to get a WordPress theme is by adding ready-made themes to your WordPress installation. You will find a large and growing repository of themes on the WordPress.ORG website. You can also find many other themes & repositories by searching google for “WordPress Themes” but I would recommend you only use themes from the WordPress repository. Themes that are submitted to the WordPress.ORG repository meet certain technical and ethical standards which are there to protect you.
I started my way with WordPress using ready-made themes and I learned the hard way that this is not a quality solution:
- My experience shows that many (if not most) of the ready-made themes are poorly built. They may look appealing, but under the hood they are poorly built and this will inhibit you and your blog in the short and long term.
- You (and most people) probably do not know how to tell apart the poorly built themes from the properly built themes.
- Inevitably most people turn to ready-made themes when they are just getting started – before they know what they want for their blog. As a result they end up settling for what their chosen ready-made theme does instead of exploring their possibilities.
- If you do know what you want for your blog you will be hard pressed to find a theme that meets your expectations (form and function).
If you don’t have a better option and you have no choice but to settle for a ready-made theme, then I would suggest you invest in one of the commercially supported themes in the WordPress.ORG repository. These themes are usually backed by developers who offer commercial support services, including customization services, which may be a good option for you.
Custom Built WordPress Themes
If your intentions are clear and serious about expressing yourself online through a blog then, in my opinion, this is the only way to go. You can either take the long-way around and try all kinds of other solutions and then have a theme custom built for you, or you can skip directly to what needs to be done. I am tempted to say that if you are not yet sure about your intentions – then you may want to play around with the ready-made themes – but to be honest I am not even sure that is true. Your experience and exploration of WordPress will be completely different with professional guidance and a custom theme – in more ways then you can probably imagine.
If you do choose to have a custom theme built for you then your challenge is now finding someone who can help you do this. Here are some ideas on how to do this:
- Find a professional to help you at:
- Ask candidates to send you references to themes they have built – see if you like and can relate to their work.
- If you can, contact some of the people who have worked with candidates, ask them how the process was for them.
Theme Frameworks – Don’t start from Scratch
Imagine, just for a few seconds, you were going to order a custom made car. What are the things that come to your mind? It is most likely cosmetic stuff – like it’s shape & color. Of course it needs to have a good engine, gear-shift, air conditioning – but that kind of goes without saying. Building a WordPress theme is kind of like that, and if you want to be able to focus on the cosmetic aspects, you need to make sure they are built around a good engine. Your choice to use WordPress is already a step in the right direction, now you need to do the same for your Theme.
Building WordPress themes from scratch can be a tedious task (remember, there’s more then meets the eye). Fortunately some talented and caring WordPress professionals have done some great work to address this challenge. They have developed “Theme Frameworks”. Theme Frameworks are essentially naked themes – they provide most of the things a good theme needs to have under the hood and they are easy to customize. This is great for theme designers because they don’t need to start from scratch. For you this promises that your custom made theme is not only appealing but also well built.
There are, to the best of my knowledge, three quality WordPress theme frameworks: Thematic, Carrington & ThemeHybrid. If your theme developer uses one of these frameworks it is a good sign. It indicates she values quality, recognizes the value of these frameworks, and is probably efficient (because it is much faster to build a theme based on a framework then from scratch). It means you are probably in good hands.
The Business of Themes
Theme framework developers are prominent and active members in the WordPress community and embody some of it’s special qualities. Their theme frameworks are offered freely to the WordPress community, some also offer free themes that are built on their own theme-frameworks. To the best of my knowledge, they all have successful businesses based on commercial support and customization services.
This is the Karma of the WordPress community. Almost everything is made available for you to use free of charge, if you enjoy and benefit from it you can send a nice thank you, make a donation or pass it on and help other enjoy it as you do. There are some commercial services which can address your special and personalized needs. BUT – the best commercial services are usually provided by people who are also contributors of free solutions to the WordPress community.
As in any community there are people who abuse the system and bend it to their needs. Please be warned – it you encounter Theme developers who only offer paid themes (or poor quality free themes intended to lure you in to buying the more luxurious paid themes) – stay away. Not only does this go against the nature of the WordPress community, but in my experience their solutions are technologically inefrior to what you can get for free.
Next up – some tips on how to work with Theme developers.