Converting a Website to WordPress: 3. Themes

WordPress uses themes to display the articles and pages from the database. This means it is a simple process to make site-wide changes to the look of your website. You can even radically change the design; simply upload or modify the theme. This is really one of the main attractions of using a content management system (CMS). There are many options for WordPress themes. Some of your options include:

  • Find for free theme that looks similar to what you want, and adapt it to your site design.
  • Adapt your existing web design to a WordPress theme (you could pay a WordPress theme designer to do this for you).
  • Pay a designer to create a custom theme design for you, or create your own theme (possibly adapting an existing theme to your needs).
  • Buy a premium theme design, such as Thesis, which gives you a lot of control over site design right from administration console.
  • Use a theme framework and design, buy, or adapt a child theme.

The official WordPress documentation has a section on Site Design and Layout that covers a lot of the basics. You will find hundreds of tutorials online that teach you how to create your own theme. You can find a freelance designer by searching the net or going to Scriptlance or Elance.

Commercial WordPress Themes

If you struggle with design and coding, or simply want to save yourself time and concentrate on your content, then choosing a theme such as Thesis is a good option. You can read my article Thesis – Should you buy a commercial WordPress theme? for more information, or go directly to the Thesis WordPress Theme website.

WordPress Theme Frameworks

I have been working extensively with the Hybrid theme framework, creating child themes for client websites. The beauty of using a framework, such as Hybrid, is that most of the design is simply creating a stylesheet. It means a design can be rapidly developed, without starting from scratch. And let’s face it, most websites have similar basic functionality, navigation structure, and design components; it isn’t necessary to have an incredibly complex design to provide basic information. I find that the main areas of customisation are with logos, graphics, and colour schemes. Most sites have a header, footer, and either two- or three-column layout. Menus can be located under the header or on the left or right side of the design. While it is possible to have far more artistic and creative layouts with all kinds of fancy features, this is neither necessary nor desirable on many websites and actually has a negative impact from visitors who are looking for information rather than entertainment or interaction with a complex interface that they are unfamiliar with. Actually, I’ve found many website visitors, who I’ve had feedback from, find it difficult to navigate simple (to me) web layouts. You can’t think like a web design designer, and build a site for web designers, unless they are your target audience. So, the rule of “keep it simple” still applies, along with making it a logical and standardised structure across your entire site.

[Edit 23/10/2010: Justin Tadlock has released Hybrid Core, which is a theme development framework for creating parent themes, unlike the Hybrid theme, which is used for developing child themes. Using a development framework is more flexible than using a parent theme, and speeds up the creation process, while giving you full control over the HTML and layout. The framework’s code is completely free and open source.]

As my experience is with Hybrid, I cannot comment on how things work with other WordPress theme frameworks, however I imagine they are very similar. In Hybrid, you simply create or modify a stylesheet, and add any additional functions to a functions.php file. Additional, advanced functionality can be gain by using the Hybrid Hook plugin, and optionally the Hybrid Hook Widgets plugin. There are some standard functions I add to my functions.php that cover removing the WordPress version number (for security – but some security plugins do this automatically), adding Google, Bing, and Yahoo verification meta tags to the front page, and making certain sections of the site “noindex,follow” with a robots meta tag. I will detail these functions in future articles.

Other options for theme frameworks include:

  • Thematic“a free, open-source, highly extensible, search-engine optimized WordPress Theme Framework featuring 13 widget-ready areas, grid-based layout samples, styling for popular plugins, and a whole community behind it. It’s perfect for beginner bloggers and WordPress development professionals.”
  • Carrington“Carrington is a CMS theme platform for WordPress that makes it easy to create unique looks for different categories, post types and comments just by creating custom templates.”

WordPress Tavern has an article comparing these themes: Comparisons Between Most Popular Theme Frameworks . Keep in mind that these theme frameworks are constantly updated, and the article was written in April 2009, well before the release of WordPress 3.0, which has meant many themes and plugins required some updating.

The next article covers some of the useful WordPress plugins I use on my sites.

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