Marketing, Business and Sales Writing, and Web Design for Software Tech and B2B Businesses.

There is almost universal agreement in web design and online marketing circles that WordPress, when used with a commercial theme of your choice to design a web site, is always a fluid, easy, organic process.

Not true. A web design using WordPress is more like molding pottery out of clay than it is like building with Lego ©  blocks. Web design in WordPress has more in common with making sausage than it does with “science” or “engineering”. Or even software development.

WordPress skills are pedestrian – CSS, some understanding of HTML and image files, and so forth.

But you probably don’t want to know what goes into your breakfast sausage. You probably also don’t want to know what really goes into grooming a WordPress site into real-life readiness.  That is the point of this article.

Bring along the Pepto. You may need it.

Most WordPress Themes Are a Joke.

Most WordPress themes – even somewhat expensive paid themes – suffer from a number of specific shortcomings, when used as the basis for web sites for commercial businesses.

Here are the specific issues that most themes share.

  • Too Bloggy: WordPress themes marketed specifically for e-commerce or business identity sites always show a blog as the sample application. Yet – almost every business site has a static home page.  The home page itself generally shows a fixed message that applies to the entire site. That means that you can’t readily use that attractive, compelling “sample design” that the theme artist is using to market his theme.
  • Poor Abstraction of Common, Necessary Design Elements: A person expecting that there is a very logical, orderly “universal control panel” to set up the site’s layout settings will be immediately frustrated by the typical WordPress+themes+plugins mashup. Another  issue is that many theme makers make no provision for certain common business site needs, such as defined places in the theme to display business identity information like phone numbers or other material.
  • An Ill thought out Customization Philosophy: The usual recommended approach to using a theme that lacks a feature is to add the feature in a WordPress child theme. This is a way to inherit a theme just one level into a descendant theme and then override whatever needs correction in the main theme.  Here’s the reality check: why do I need to hand modify a purchased “complete” theme that is ready for use?

Before I came to a grasp of the most common issues and learned how to cope with them, these shortcomings drove me nuts.

Another Problem: It is Almost Impossible to Find Honest Reviews of WordPress Themes.

Most independent website theme reviews are – quite frankly – bullshit.

The problem is affiliate links. Or rather, so called reviews that are simply keyword and link bait fodder where the authors make a few dollars a month from reselling the same theme that they are “reviewing”.

These faux reviews are almost always 100% unabashedly positive. And always end in an invitation to purchase the theme through a conveniently provided affiliate link code.

I have yet to see one highly critical independent WordPress theme reviewer. The information given in these reviews is usually untouched by a grown adult who had to solve a real business based web design challenge.

What Do These Issues Mean to You?

Your WordPress based web site project will require much more technical expertise, and design skills, from you, than you were probably lead to believe by what you have read on the subject.

You should virtually ignore vendor claims and focus on specific theme features that you can use on your projects.

Cheer up – you’ll learn a lot if you persevere.  😉

  • You were told that themes were good to go out of the box. Not true.
  • You were told that you wouldn’t need to master any technology. Just push some buttons and set some theme parameters. No. Not true.
  • The theme author told you that they took a rigorous, business-savvy approach to designing the theme just for web designers like you. Not really.
  • The theme company told you that they had “an architecture”, a “platform”, a “system”, which eases the rare case of custom coding.  The “grand architecture” comes at a cost: steep learning curve. It will take you much, much longer to learn the theme’s proprietary chunk of code in order to extend it, than it would to use a very simple WP theme, consult the WordPress Codex (online help), and extend the simple theme for what you need.

Next are my recent experiences in developing a new web site for a client.

Example #1 – Rejecting a Theme That Doesn’t Fit Real Business Needs.

I am going to pick on one theme that I evaluated, and later asked for a refund on: (in)SPYR by Spyr Media, a child theme of StudioPress’s “Genesis Framework.”

The demo looked awesome, and I could see how it could work for my client’s site. Based on appearance, and also the “street cred” of Genesis Framework, I bought it.

But I later asked for a refund when I saw what I considered the tip of an iceberg.

I’ll focus on the one “trivial” issue that pushed me over the edge.

Here’s the page footer in the (in)SPYR live demo.

inspyr1

It looks nice.

Now, what if you wanted to replace the social media links and the centered page title in the footer with a more standard company information footer, disclaimer, phone number and street address, etc.?

You just CAN’T.

The theme’s settings only make provision for a Twitter feed and a Facebook page and a Google+ page link. The labels on the footer for the social media links are fixed. The redundant and too large automatically inserted page title (derived from the WordPress site settings) is not useful for my design and gets in the way.

I am handy with CSS – but this is a fundamental mismatch of the design with my needs (and likely the real life needs of almost any business). And I can’t compensate for it using a style tweak.

I consulted with the StudioPress community board. The responses I received indicated that I had to modify (in)SPYR’s core PHP files. This meant that, just to do this, I had to embrace and learn the Genesis API.

I felt like I was falling down the rabbit hole.

Now, were I to follow this tack, here’s a code organization problem looming. (in)SPYR is a child theme already. So I would basically have to modify my copy of (in)SPYR itself. Then I would have to remember, track and re-do the fixes if I ever upgraded the theme to a new version.

I can cope with a “dip”, and learning curve. I won’t cope with a tool that doesn’t provide reasonable accommodation of my needs.

I made a tactical decision that I didn’t have the time, patience or interest in confronting a design issue this serious this early in the process.

I asked for a refund under a 30 day no questions asked policy. StudioPress was exceedingly prompt and polite about issuing a refund for the theme.

Example #2 – Adopting the Theme That is “Almost” But Really Not Quite There.

I’m an engineer at heart, which means that I solve problems. Life is about compromises. I can work with an “almost” case. That’s the nature of the example I will give next.

Concurrent with evaluating (in)SPYR for a project, I purchased a theme library called Elegant Themes and I finally chose the “Chameleon” theme in Elegant Themes for my client’s project.

I initially wound up adopting Chameleon for the following reasons:

  • Responsive layout – a Chameleon based site will pleasantly rearrange itself to accommodate a narrow screen width. This supports mobile and tablet based visitors.
  • A Home Page Slide Show that I could use to showcase my client’s work.
  • Support for Image Galleries to display portfolios of past projects.

I stayed with Chameleon and Elegant Themes for a deeper reason: simplicity.

It turns out that Chameleon itself is adding little uniqueness to my site design. In fact, only the basic frame of the theme and the responsive code are things that I stayed with. I’ll discuss that next.

But it’s much easier to work with than (in)SPYR – its code is relatively simple – and I have been able to McGyver everything I have needed to do.

Here is the Chameleon demo page.

Chameleon Theme Demo

Chameleon Theme Demo

And here is a rough version of my client’s site using Chameleon:

My Client's Site - Based on Chameleon

My Client’s Site – Based on Chameleon

Note the visual differences between the two:

  • The page layout is completely my design (plus that of a graphic designer whom I am working with to refine it beyond this image.) I used Chameleon like a vanilla blank slate that I filled with color and layout decisions.
  • Static page based. Not a blog as in the demo. The static look had to be built up brick by brick.
  • The logo is visually located outside the content area of the site, not inside the content area at the top as in the Chameleon demo. (Most web site logos that you see on real sites are not crammed into the content area.)
  • Company contact information is located directly beneath the logo.

There are also some differences within the site that you don’t see here:

  • Chameleon’s slide show had little value because it had few ways to customize the slide show size and behavior. I am using third party plugin instead.
  • The portfolio and gallery logic built into Chameleon was (in my opinion) really badly designed. It is built around the notion that every single photo in a gallery was an “attached image” of a WordPress post. In other words, just to construct a gallery of 30 pictures, I had to create a WordPress blog post for every one of those images. As I did with the slide show, I am ignoring the built in feature and using a plugin for galleries, which is resulting in far less work and far more control over the appearance than the built-in gallery provided.

Next, here are some simple guidelines to keep in mind.

Bottom Line #1: Most Real Life Businesses and Most WordPress Themes Don’t Mix.

I believe I can summarize what I have observed from the experience of evaluating WordPress themes for a real project, and from past observations, in this way:

Many WordPress theme designers are not business people and they don’t consider business needs. Period. At all. That means that you’re really on your own, no matter how “feature packed” the theme is. And some well known commercial themes seem to be designed in an almost childish way that limits real life applications.

This may sound rough, and insulting to theme authors. But, think about it. Who buys a $100+ theme package for their personal blog? What real life business is only accessible through Twitter and Facebook links?

My assumption is that most commercial themes  are sold for the purpose of creating business sites. But most themes miss the mark on providing the simple features that  real web sites demand.

My experience with the hard coded footer in one theme package that only made provision for social media links and nothing else indicated to me that the theme author has little business experience. The author doesn’t like to talk on the phone, and he conducts all of his affairs by social media. So he doesn’t provide a slot in the footer for a phone number. That’s the message I get.

In the future I’ll treat any claim of a theme as being “ready for business” as dubious at best.

Bottom Line #2: Some WordPress Themes Do Lend Themselves to Real Life Web Sites. You Need a Grown Adult to Help With That, though.

A web designer must consider a theme a starting point, and then depart from it significantly in order to create a business like site that will serve the needs of his client.

This means several things:

  • You must consider any WordPress theme a compromise, possibly subject to some code modifications in order to create the specific look that you need.
  • Don’t be a purist about using only what the theme provides… chances are that plugins will be required.
  • Embrace, Learn and Grok CSS. CSS is the key to the web design kingdom. Without a clear understanding of what CSS does and how to make simple CSS modifications (usually by creating an overriding style sheet for your project), your design will probably not be complete.
  • Learn and Use the Web Page Inspector in Chrome or FireFox. This is a key way that I learn how a web page is constructed so that I can customize the appearance.
  • Learn enough PHP to get by, or hire a coder. If the HTML emitted by the theme must be changed, then you probably need to hack (modify) the code. Chances are you can get by without doing this on many projects. But you may need a feature that the theme simply doesn’t provide. One comparatively easy way to add a design element to the HTML is by creating a new widget placement area in the dashboard. I added “footer text” to one theme by doing this.

Bottom Line #3: Look for a money back, no questions asked refund policy on theme purchases.

You just don’t know if a given theme can be molded into a serious publication tool, or is simply a clueless student’s project, until you get your hands on the code and give it a try in real life on a real project.

Both ElegantThemes and StudioPress, at the time of this writing, offer 30 day refund policies on their products (I did wind up keeping Elegant Themes).

Note, however, that the very popular ThemeForest theme marketplace site does not provide refunds except in cases where the product is not complete or is clearly not as described.

If you take advantage of a refund policy with any vendor,  please do the ethical thing and remove all traces of the paid theme from your systems after you are refunded.

Conclusion

Composing a finished work from a WordPress theme goes far beyond anything that the theme developer probably envisioned. You will have to push your knowledge and skills well past the narrow confines that the media says is “all you need” to create stunning WordPress based business sites.



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