To Theme Or Not To Theme

This entry was posted in General Musings by Cleave on

That is the question that faces all users of WordPress and really every blog that is on the net. You see blogs all over the place and we see sites that look practically the same on every page. The reason they look the same is that they use a theme which makes sure that every page is using the same graphic sets and the same collection of CSS definitions. We have come to expect this on sites, it give uniformity and allows us to enjoy the content instead of everything changing constantly. It makes our time of the site more enjoyable since we can focus on the content after we have been wowed by the graphics. How those graphics and code get put into place we really don’t care, we just want what is on the page. So I have decided to take you behind the scenes , so to speak, and tell you about the themes that you see, especially here on this site.

Lately you have seen sites, especially Google changing the way their site looks for just about any holiday or special occasion that they can think of. Even IMDb has been doing this as well for both holidays and for movie promotions. This trend is sweeping the net and the reason that it can is because of themes. In the past you litterally coded every single solitary page of a website till SSI, CGI, Javascript and especially PHP made it so that you could just change a few files and your whole website would change instantly. So instantly that it is litterally like switching one a light or changing the channel of your favorite radio station. This kind of flexibility has revolutionized websites and how they are made and maintained. Can you immaging if you had to change the theme of a website that had 500 pages or 1000 and you had to do it by hand? They really used to do it by hand. Sure they had search and replace functions to make it easier but the time it took to make sure that everything was correct could take days and sometimes weeks to be able to convert an entire website. Not only that but then when they changed the site they would have to take it off line to the public so they could upload all the graphics and HTML files that were needed which in itself could take a few hours some times. Looking at changes this way you can see why the programers came up with better ways to be able to theme a website.

Even after the coding and programing was made to make theme switching possible it was still not easy. If you were not fluent in a programing language you would have to get it done for you. This is still partially true today but not much of an issue if you can read between the lines. And yes I mean literally reading between the lines of code for all good programers document what they are doing in the code so they know where to go back and make changes when they need to. So you see if you watch what they are doing even though you don’t know the why or how you can still be able to make theme changes to the actual template. It is in the actually PHP codes where much of the themes and instructions for how the theme works are located. So once you have a working theme then you don’t even have to worry at all about what is in to code or what it does because you don’t even have to change any of that ever. To make changing themes you just need to copy all the HTML that you see in the browser and then save it, its graphic set and CSS files off someplace to work with. I know some sites and themes have Javascripts and other kinds of scripts in them but normally you do not have to worry about any of that at all.

Once you have all of the information saved off you are able to actually start the themeing or changing of the theme process. If you don’t have the original PSD files then you will need to reconstruct a working set from the graphics that are being used in the current theme. Since you are going to be changing how the site looks it will not matter how the original ones are made you just have to know what sizes they are so you can make the slices needed for the site. Take your time while you are doing this, there is no one to hurry you but you. If you miss your personal deadline that you set for yourself is anyone going to care other then you? Take your time and make sure the graphics are lining up and set right so that you can figure out all your slices. I can tell you from experience from the 5 different mods that I have made that it will take some time and you will be constantly changing how you do them as you go along. It is all about getting better at making the graphics and learning what will and will not work. This is true of even professionals. They are learning how to do things all the time, you can never stop learning with the net constantly evolving.

OK, you have your initial set and you already have your set of CSS files from when you copied everything over to be worked on. When working with WordPress you can get a good copy of html to work with by looking at the online preview where you got your theme. If you made the theme yourself then you already have those codes and don’t have to hunt them down :P The reason you will need them is that they highlight the key parts of the theme for CSS and text placement. The entire theme except for what is hardcoded into the PHP files is controled completely by what is in those CSS files. That is why once you have your graphics and graphic set it is easy to change themes out even as often as every hour or less. Granted you have to have a way to change them out and with WordPress there is an excelent plugin that you can install called WP Change Template By T1gr0u. What this plug in does is allow you to set the date and time that a theme should change and to which one you want it changed to. Programers are always trying to find ways to make things easier, you just have to know how and where to look to make your life and site easier.

It can take many hours or even days to get the graphics to look the way that you want them to. If your are a perfectionist then you better be a Grand Master at using PhotoShop or other graphics program or your going to be frustrated to hell and back. Don’t rush or you will not have something that you will even want to use and ALWAYS keep in mind that others are going to see what you have made. I don’t stress the ALWAYS part to make you nervous but to point out that not everyone loads images in the browser as fast as you do when they are off line. There are even people that might be on dialup coming to your site and if the graphic set for your theme is too big it is never going to load up in a reasonable time for them. So even though the world is going broadband there are still those that even with so called broad band that can’t stream a video without it buffering 5 times as long as the clip itself. Keep things clean, simple and light in that you don’t want a bunch of Flash or auto play videos or massive graphics to slow things down. You want the pages to look good and load fast. You might have to make a dozen changes or more to just a single slice to get it to an acceptable size for use. It is always trial and error when finding the right size.

Now that you have the graphics done, remember it is one graphic set per individual theme, you are ready to work on the CSS that will be needed. You will be using the HTML code that you saved to work with since it has all the placements for the text, examples and graphics. Two excellent programs to work with are that of TopStyle and CSE HTML Validator Both can even work together to make sure that you have all the HTML code and CSS done correctly for your site. With TopStyle you are able to adjust your CSS and instantly see how it is going to affect what is displayed on your page. It can even emulate different browsers and settings so that you know that no matter who comes to your site they are all going to see the same thing. Sure this can be time consuming but when is anything that is fulfilling not time consuming. If you want to have several different themes that doesn’t require you to re write it every time this really is the only way to get it done and have it always available for your visitors. Just a point here but if you are always using the same PHP codes and just changing the graphics and CSS then you never have to worry about re doing all of your SEO work that you might have done for your site.

If you take your time and think about what you want to have and show others then you are always going to have a site that you are going to be proud of. If an idea comes to you for a look then write it down or make a quick sketch and then go make it on the computer. If you thought of it then you are sure to find a place to use it even if it is just to brighten up your site. If you have a layout that works there really is not need to change that part of your site, just make a new set of clothes for it that are cut to the same size and you will see just how easy it is to make themes for your site and keep visitors coming back to see what you are going to do next. So enjoy the mockups of the themes I have already done and start making your own graphic sets today.