I’m honored to join a panel of WordPress experts at the WPJax and JOMM WordPress Meetup here in Jacksonville. We are answering questions surrounding the development of WordPress websites. Here is a breakdown and some additional resources for the discussion on Themes that I will be representing.
What should we be looking for in selecting a theme for a do-it-yourself site?
Lean and Mean!
Choose a theme that honors the WordPress best practice of separating functionality from design from content from the core. Let each piece do what it does best. Choose themes that do not carry a lot of bells and whistles in their own code that would be better accomplished with the right plugin.
This is a big topic for all software (and yes, your WordPress website is considered software). Make sure your theme comes from a reputable, active and engaged developer/designer. Review the level and responsiveness of support and the amount of usage a theme has as a starting place in this decision.
Not all themes are created equal. Is your favorite theme flexible or very limiting with just some amazing screenshots to try to make the sale. Watch out for quality on many marketplaces. There is a raging debate about the quality and security of the themes sold in several of the non-WordPress specific marketplaces such as ThemeForest and the like. Read more about this at Torque Mag.
SEO, Responsive Best Practices
Does your theme follow good coding standards and industry recommendations. Don’t get locked into a theme that Google’s gonna hate! If possible, test it out and test the demos on your mobile devices as well.
What are the differences between themes, child themes, and frameworks?
Themes handle the front-end visual of your site. Any customizations you make can be overridden by theme updates, if they are necessary. Themes must handle all the heavy lifting of the visual, including pagination, navigation, sidebars, layouts, code structure, logos, backgrounds etc.
Frameworks lay the groundwork and you simply build on top of it. They make it easy and fast to just focus on visual and know that the code is right. I love Genesis for this very reason. In fact, it’s what I use for every project.
Child Themes are built on top of existing themes or frameworks. If the underlying code is updated, you don’t lose customizations. It’s a very effective model allowing you to move quickly with excellence already in place.
How do I know when it’s time to hire help for designing my site?
I recommend choosing a theme that has the EXACT content you intended to use, unless you are comfortable making a lot of customizations in the PHP and CSS. If they have 200 words, you use 200 words. If they use a rectangular narrow logo, you use a rectangular narrow logo. If the home page is one large awesome hero image, you better have one large awesome hero image to use. If not, your setup will never look like the theme demo and you’ll pull your hair out. THAT’S when it’s time to get some help.
Is learning to customize and tweak a theme into your vision the BEST use of your time? An expert can knock things out for you with the experience and skill already in place that you might lack. It’s not that you can’t do it, it’s a business question of if you should be doing it.
If you have a particular vision of your site, you might do well to hire and hire early. Don’t waste months tweaking to death something you’re going to need to scratch once a professional gets involved. And get them involved early. Don’t buy a theme if you intend on hiring a developer! Let them in on the process, they can save you time and money with some good suggestions before the sale.
How flexible is WordPress as far as user experience and site function and size?
WordPress is quite extensible. I’ve seen it do everything from e-commerce, to blogs, to product promotion, to corporate sites, to membership, to lead pages, to crowd-funding, and more. If you want to do more than a basic informational site or a blog, talk to the community and be amazed by what it can be modified to do with the right themes, plugins and customizations.
Should I build my own theme? What skills do I need to have to do this?
Start by playing with free ones or even premium ones. Then consider tweaking existing themes as a way to learn. Consider making a child theme to sit on top of the your theme or framework.
If you build it from scratch, you need the skills to make sure it is secure and you will need to stay involved if a security issue is ever brought up. Also you’ll have to stay on top of technology changes yourself (example, the rise of mobile).
The WordPress community has many great learning resources
- Follow WordPress Blogs. Here is an OPML Feedly import of some of my favorites.
- Use WordPress.org and it’s amazing resources
- Attend WordPress meetups such as WPJax
- Attend WordCamps, annual regional community gatherings for all levels of expertise
- Watch WordPress.tv. It contains great videos from past WordCamps and other WordPress focused events.
- Learn some of the underlying technologies: Basic PHP, CSS, HTML, basic graphic design, etc.
- Become a good Googler! If you need it, chances are someone else needed it first.