Last Updated on October 3, 2020.
Update Oct 2020
I am rethinking my ideas on functionality and design versus speed for today’s websites. An ever-growing number of people are using smartphones to access the Internet. This makes speed a critical factor. I will write more on this soon.
The first steps to take when choosing a theme for your website is to define the purpose, required functionality and the tone, look and feel of your site. This can help you select a theme which will make the right first impression on your users.
Defining the tone, look and feel
You need to define what psychological impact you want to have on your users.
Choosing the right theme is a bit like choosing the decor for a room in your house or apartment. When you decorate a room, you need to decide what visual impact you want it to have on visitors, and how it will make people feel when they live in or use that room. Will it be calming, stimulating, fun, classical or modern? The color scheme and all the objects you put in that room will contribute to its atmosphere. It is much the same when you choose a theme for your website.
As an example, this website has been built using a commercial theme. For webwisewording.com, I wanted a theme with zen-like simplicity on the homepage, to showcase the slide show of quotes and images in an understated style. I also wanted to give an impression of ‘clarity’ through an uncluttered appearance on my blog pages. I couldn’t find a theme in Joomla which fitted these requirements, so I moved to WordPress for this theme. By the way, I miss some of the functionality of Joomla (quite a few features, in fact), but am enjoying the simplicity of WordPress. But that’s another story for another blog post.
Respect the competence of the graphic artist who designed your theme. I have seen stunningly beautiful themes massacred by some developers who used artwork and images which shout an angry conflict with the inherent harmonies in the theme. If you are going to develop your own website using a purchased theme, and you know that you are not artistically sensitive, then pay someone else to create your logo and select your artwork for you. There are a number of websites where you can ask contractors to bid competitively to do some graphical work for you at modest prices, such as:-
Permeating your entire site with the right tone, look and feel
Color, images and the ‘tone’ of your conversation with the user all help to create a psychological impact on your users, and help to communicate a subtle message about who you are.
This is how I take steps to imbue a site with the right psychological note. I get a feel for the required ‘tone’, and do my best to put it into words. Then I search (and search and search) through the available commercial themes. Having selected the appropriate theme, I pay attention to creating a harmony between the logo, images and the theme itself, so that it all looks well-integrated and harmonious. Colors need to be harmonious or complementary, and the psychological tone of the images needs to also be in harmony with the overall tone of the website. Then I add small touches for usability such as underlining the links for extra clarity. It is a time-consuming process, but I find that it is the attention to the small details which creates the harmony and helps achieve that overall right ‘tone, look and feel’ for a website.
You should have a list of functional requirements for your website (for example a shopping cart, comments system, forum, etc.). When selecting a theme, you should look for one that already includes the majority of your most important functions, so that you can assess and test them in the live demo site, and communicate with the developer if you have any questions about their functionality.
It would be rare to find a perfect template with all the functionality you require, so you may need to explore the available plugins and test these out before you purchase a theme. (If you have a local test environment on your desktop computer such as WAMP, you can install plugins onto a local test site for evaluation.)
Responsive Design: Today, we need to consider how our website will look on mobile devices (phones and iPads or tablets) as well as on desktop computers. So when I search for a new theme or template, I make sure it is “responsive” and I test out the live demo site to see how it displays on my smartphone or tablet.
Selecting a commercial theme
I always go for commercial themes rather than free ones. I find with free ones, they are often more ‘buggy’, less fully-featured, and the developer often is not sufficiently motivated to provide the necessary support. When selecting a commercial theme, I look for:
- A good user rating (at least 4 stars) from a significant number of users.
- A good history of support by the theme developer. I study their support forums quite closely.
- Regular updates should be available.
- A popular theme. If theme developers are making good revenue from their themes, they are more likely to stay in business and keep supporting their product.
- Good user documentation. Quality video tutorials are a big plus.
- Functionality. The theme should have most of the features I require, and I need to find and assess plugins for the remainder.
Choosing a WordPress theme
My favourite theme provider for WordPress is themeforest.net. The reasons I like ThemeForest are:-
- They have a very large number of themes to choose from
- You can browse their themes by a selection of criteria and search terms. I always enter the search term “responsive”
- Their “elite” theme authors are motivated to provide good support as they have income and a reputation to protect
- You can see user ratings and have access to comments and support blogs to help assess the quality of the theme and the support provided
- Once you have purchased a theme, you have free access to ongoing updates
Choosing a Joomla template
The jury is out on who my favourite Joomla template provider is. I have tried several, but have some issues with all of them. If you are looking for a commercial Joomla template:-
- Make sure the template seller provides regular updates for all their templates, even their older ones, to be compatible with the latest release of Joomla. Don’t get caught out if they abandon upgrades to templates which are older than 2 years old, as this means in future you will be unable to update your website to the latest version of Joomla. This will leave your sites vulnerable to security breaches, and you will forced to rebuild them with entirely new templates, or risk being infected with malware. Rebuilding a Joomla site with a new template takes quite a lot of work, and you would be better off with an upgrade path. So check through the list of templates going back a few years, and make sure they all have versions which are compatible with the latest Joomla release.
- When you find a template provider that you think you like:-
- Check out their forums for the quality and speed of support they provide
- Search the Web for user reviews and what people have said about them
Other factors to consider
Speed: Sometimes the most impressive looking themes are slow to load as they can be bloated with unnecessary functionality. Fast page load is more important than ever especially for people using smartphones to access your website. Simple themes can sometimes be faster.
Support: How important is it to get technical support from the theme author? It can be worth having a paid support agreement if you need assistance from time to time.
Ease of use: Sometimes I like to reuse the same theme and adapt it to different purposes, simply because I am familiar with its configuration and functionality.
Why updates are important
With increasing security threats on the Internet, it is essential that you keep your CMS (such as Joomla, WordPress, Drupal, etc.) up to date. This is because the CMS developers keep identifying security vulnerabilities and providing upgrades with fixes for them. So you must keep your CMS up-to-date with the latest available releases, and also update your theme and plugins when new updates become available. This will help minimize the risk of security breaches on your website. If you have a large complex website with many visitors, it is wise to test upgrades on a test copy. At the very least, make a backup before upgrading, so that you can restore from the upgrade if necessary.