Whether it’s a face lift for your existing site, adding a few new features, or starting from scratch, there are few things which will impact your visitors as much as your theme. But for most people looking for a new theme can be just as daunting as sending my husband to the grocery store. He knows what he likes to eat, but where in the store that is and which brands and sizes are a mystery. But if I send him with a store map and a list which has pictures of the items to get, he does an excellent job grocery shopping.
This article will give a map and some specific items to look for when shopping for your new theme. While I will mention some WordPress items, this same approach can be applied to other content management systems.
Starting from Scratch vs Changing Your Current Theme
If you have a brand new website, you have the luxury of starting from scratch. One of the advantages of starting from scratch is that your visitors aren’t used to anything yet. They come with some preconceived notions about what a web site is supposed to look like, but they aren’t used to your site having specific features in specific locations. This gives you a lot of options on layout, style and design.
However, if you have an existing website, you need to consider where things currently are. People can be very adverse to change. Consider the following two real life scenarios and how people would react:
- Moving a cook’s pots and pans around their existing kitchen.
- Moving to a new house and putting the pots and pans in new places.
Generally speaking people are more forgiving of change if it’s big. In the cook’s existing kitchen they have patterns and habits, whereas in a new kitchen the appliances and everything else have moved so they are more open to their pots and pans being relocated. How does this apply to websites? If you are keeping the same general layout of your website, you should keep popular items in the same place. If you want to move a lot of popular items around, you should consider a complete overhaul to break people’s patterns.
Before you go on a mission to change your theme consider how people use your site. What things are they clicking on a lot? Something like a heat map can be useful here or surveying your visitors. If a particular feature is very popular, you probably want to leave it right where it is (or make it easier to get to if it’s a little hidden). Less frequently used features on the other hand can usually be moved without adversely affecting your users.
Two fun things to change on your website theme which can make a big splash without affecting navigation are color and typography. Changing up your color palette or just updating the hues and background patterns can make a big impact. Typography is the art of using font styles to make an impact. With the advent of web fonts, typography is making a big splash in web design. Just remember on your color and typography journey that text still needs to be readable and to watch for any combos which would adversely affect those who are color blind.
Desktop, Tablet & Mobile
More and more people are using the internet from their tablet and mobile devices, which creates a unique problem. Desktop screens are frequently 15+ inches wide, whereas smart phone screens are closer to 2 inches wide. That’s a lot of difference. On the plus side, many mobile and tablet devices have excellent support for HTML 5 & CSS 3, and actually do a nice job of scaling web content. On the minus side, those links that are easy to click on desktop may be impossible on a smart phone.
So what can you do about this? Well, you have basically three options.
- Do nothing – If your website has primarily older users (60+) or is designed for people who typically use large monitors (like graphic designers), then you can do nothing. But you should still make sure that most of your important content is on the left side of the page, since those show up on tablets. And tablets are a growing market with older people.
- Separate Mobile & Desktop – Have a website which has one set of display criteria for desktop/tablet devices and a separate one for mobile. Limit the width of your page to 900-1000 pixels so that you will fit on tablets, and then design your mobile considering both landscape and portrait on a mobile phone.
- Responsive – A responsive website changes based on the screen width of the device using the website. Most, if not all of the content is displayed on every device, usually just rearranged and scaled to suit the device. This is a popular approach for websites getting a lot of mobile and tablet visitors. It also means only designing one site instead of two. There are some excellent themes which will handle the heavy lifting for you.
Which option you choose to take should depend on what device your website visitors are using. Also look at your general demograph and what devices they frequently use. Are your users mostly over 60? Then focusing on the desktop is a good bet. Are they in their 20s? You’d better account for smart phones.
Narrowing Theme Options
Just like when you go to the grocery store, when you go theme shopping you need a list! The following are some common decisions to make for your theme shopping list.
- Cost – Free vs Purchase vs Annual. Free themes are well, free. Purchased themes are those where you pay a one-time fee and receive the theme. You may or may not get updates to the theme included in the purchase price. Annual payment themes require a yearly payment. They normally do include updates to the theme and frequently include multiple themes as part of the annual fee.
- eCommerce – If your site will primarily be a store, you probably want to start with an eCommerce theme. It’s designed to do exactly what you want to do. If eCommerce will be a side avenue of your site instead of the primary use, you may prefer a plugin used with a non-eCommerce theme.
- SEO – Most SEO relies on you, the content writer. The theme should automatically put page titles and blog posts as H1. So while everyone is concerned about their theme supporting SEO, there’s really not a whole lot a theme is responsible for when it comes to SEO. Sorry folks, no magic cure for hard work.
- Navigation – on the top or on the side. There are themes that do both well. The major question is usually how much horizontal space do you want for your content. If you want a lot of horizontal space, you are better off with top navigation.
- Sidebar – A right sidebar with supplemental information on inner pages of a website is a common design element. These are usually easy to add or remove, so I wouldn’t list them as a deal breaker. However, if you want a responsive theme, it is probably easier to get a theme that is the way you want it to be (that way the theme handles rearranging the sidebar for you).
- Image Slider – It’s generally easier to start with a theme that’s designed to have a slider than try to add one. Similarly, if you don’t want a slider you probably want a theme that doesn’t have one. It’s usually not too difficult to change out the slider for one of the many excellent plugins if you don’t like how it displays.
- Responsive/Mobile/Desktop – As already mentioned, you want to make this decision up front. But, going responsive can improve your visitors experience, which can lead to better conversions.
Now that you know what you need to have, you will be able to exclude a lot of themes as you search. But, there are some items in a theme that are usually easy to change. These items should mostly be ignored when shopping for a theme since they are usually quite easy to change. Depending on the theme these may or may not require modifying the actual HTML or CSS code — but even if it does it’s usually quick and simple modifications which can be done inexpensively by a designer.
Generally some of the easiest things to change on a given theme are:
- Colors – Some of the newer themes have the ability to modify certain colors from within the graphical user interface of your CMS. Others will require modification of HTML/CSS.
- Fonts – Some themes are starting to include multiple fonts, and there are plugins which can can override existing font choices in theme. But even when you do need to modify the CSS file, it’s usually a very small change made very quickly. The hardest is usually picking the new font.
- Deleting something – While this may require someone who has familiarity with HTML/CSS, it generally just requires selecting the right bit of code and pressing delete.
- Social media sharing – there are a number of plugins to do this without touching the HTML/CSS code. Although if you want the sharing included in custom locations there is HTML/CSS to modify.
- Footers – These often require HTML/CSS changes. But they are usually pretty quick and I would not use footers to decide my theme.
- Analytics – There are plugins which can put in this code for you without needing to edit the HTML/CSS, although if you have a designer they should do this for you.
- SEO – Since this is mostly the content provider’s job (yours), this is easy to add. There are also some great plugins to help with this.
Sometimes you go looking for a theme and come up empty handed. All of the existing themes would just require too much modification. This is the time that you go and look for a blank canvas theme. These are themes with very little style to them. They are specifically designed to be a canvas that a designer works from. Here are a couple resources for blank themes:
- 10 Blank WordPress themes for development
- 80 Premium Quality Yet Free WordPress Themes
- 100 Excellent Free WordPress Themes
- Ultimate Collection of Free WordPress Themes of 2012
- Woo Themes – They get mentioned here and below since they have some free themes
- Web2Feel – Beautiful & free themes
- Official WordPress theme directory
- ThemeForest – These are single purchase themes (sometimes discounts & bundles though).
- Mojo Themes – Also single purchase.
- WooThemes – You can get one theme, a couple themes for the price of one or get an annual membership for all their themes. They have a few options and their site answers most questions on pricing & what you get.
- ThemeFurnace – Your choice: you can purchase just a single theme or an annual membership for access to all their themes.
- Elegant Themes – Probably my favorite since I think they are just stunning. Annual membership for all of their themes (and yes you can use them on more than one site).
- Disclaimer: some links in this blog contain links to affiliate sites.