In my series this week on how to get started blogging, I’ve touched on the business of blogging for yourself, why you should use WordPress and how to configure it, and the best WordPress plugins. Today I’m going to focus on look and feel.
WordPress uses a “theme” system to bundle images, CSS files and PHP templates into a single package (well, zip file). You can browse through the official WordPress theme gallery, or you can search the web for “WordPress themes” and find all kinds of good stuff. Go browsing around, find one you like, and then make sure you really, really like it exactly the way it is.
Don’t ever, ever, ever edit a theme.
Unless you make a living doing CSS work, unless you understand the intricacies of browser rendering engines, unless you put absolutely no value on your time, don’t ever open the hood and start monkeying with the theme.
Want proof? Check out this screenshot of SQLServerPedia by Stuart Ainsworth (who blogs about SQL Server at CodeGumbo.com):
That’s SQLServerPedia, and no, it’s not supposed to look like that. It looks fine on Firefox on a 22″ monitor, looks fine on IE on a 19″ monitor, but it looks like boiled hell on IE on a 22″ monitor.
Why does it look like that? Because us Questies couldn’t find a theme that was “just right”, so we worked with our graphics department to throw all kinds of things into an existing theme. It’s been a long, hard slog through CSS files and PHP templates, and it’s never freakin’ done. Fix one thing, and three other things pop up. I’m a SQL Server DBA, not a CSS guru, and it’s frustrating to have stuff like this get in the way of the technical stuff I want to accomplish, like writing and editing articles.
I’ve run into this same problem on my own personal blog. Every year or two, I’ll get itchy about the way the site looks, and I’ll want to change the theme. Mix things up a little. Keep it fresh. Whatever. So I go around looking for templates, and I’ll find one that’s really close, and if only I could change one thing…bam, the CSS nightmare starts.
Even worse, when you tweak a theme, you can’t upgrade to newer versions of that theme without rebuilding your tweaks. Theme editors sometimes update their themes by popular demand for certain tweaks (like easier resizing, or maybe different numbers or positions of sidebars) and you’ll want to use their free upgrades – but you can’t, not without investing more hours in a text editor. Blech.
My recommendation: pick a theme that meets as many of your criteria as possible, and then stick with that theme the way it is. So what criteria do we use to judge a theme?
Fluid Width versus Fixed Width
Fluid width themes will automatically expand when the reader has a big monitor. Fixed width themes are stuck at around 1024×768 or 800×600. The theme on my site right now is a fixed width theme, and here’s what it looks like on a 22″ widescreen monitor:
For an example of a fluid width site, check out Amazon.com. No matter how wide your monitor is, Amazon will suck up the whole thing:
There’s pros and cons to each approach. If I could find a fluid width theme I really liked, I’d use it, but they’re surprisingly hard to find if you want to use photos across the top. Decide early on which style you want, and don’t ever try to change a fixed one to a fluid one without professional web guru help. (And I don’t mean me, because I’ve lost days of my life to that thankless task.)
Don’t Worry About the Images
Most themes come with a stock photo across the top or down the side. Maybe it’s a happy couple, maybe it’s a house for sale, maybe it’s a goth kid with an eye piercing – ignore it. It’s easy to swap out photos.
For photos across the top of your theme, you can use your own photos, or search Flickr. Use Flickr’s advanced search and at the bottom of that search form, check out the Creative Commons options. You can check the box for only searching Creative Commons licensed content, and reuse those photos on your own site – as long as you’re not trying to make money, and as long as you give them credit for their photos. (Pay attention to the licensing.)
No matter what kind of site you’re doing, you can easily find funny images to put across the top, but…
Don’t Use Themes with Irregularly Shaped Pictures
Some themes can’t be easily edited because they threw so many graphics into it. This Japan-Style Theme has all of the big warning signs:
There’s all kinds of curved images in here, buttons with graphical backgrounds, transparent leaves on the background, you name it, it’s got pretty graphics. Problem is, if you want to swap one part of that out, it’s going to be a huge pain in the rear.
If you’re a graphic artist by profession, then show your stuff. If you’re a database administrator, any attempts to be a graphic artist are going to look – well, they’re going to look like a DBA trying to learn Photoshop. ‘Nuff said.
Know a Little About the Theme Designer
Themes come out, new browsers come out later, and the abandoned themes don’t always work well with new browsers. Ideally, find a theme that has been out for a while and has been updated at least once so that you know the original developer still cares about it.
I chose PrimePress because:
- The author cared enough to put a page on his own web site about it. Some themes are just on the WordPress gallery, and nothing else – the author doesn’t even have a home page. You can bet that theme will never be updated again.
- The theme had a changelog. Holy moly. I’ve used SOFTWARE that doesn’t even have a changelog.
- The author had a web forum for support.
These are way above and beyond what a normal WordPress theme has, but keep your eyes peeled and you can find a gem like this. (Or, just use PrimePress like mine, hahaha, but please do us all a favor and don’t use my images at the top of the page. The world gets enough exposure to my photos as it is.)
Wait – This Sounds Like a Lot of Work!
I think picking the right visual theme is harder than setting up the blog plumbing! But if you focus on the mechanics first, get the site up and running, and make sure it all works, then changing the way it looks is easy to do along the way. You can experiment with different themes all the time without having to blow up and rebuild your blog – WordPress makes that part easy.