Custom WordPress Theme Design: What to Look For
WordPress is the most popular content management system for a reason. It flexible, extendable and user-friendly. No wonder it’s used by 28% of the web. If you’ve decided to use WordPress one of your first decisions is use an existing theme (paid or free) or a custom developed one. We’ve written about this decision here.
If it’s a custom theme you need then you need to hire someone to build it. Picking the right partner can be difficult, especially if you’re not familiar with what the build out process entails. How do you know if one partner is better than another?
To complicate things further two nearly identical looking themes could perform dramatically different. How the theme is built behind the scenes greatly impacts performance. In this post I’ll cover some of the critical elements of a successful custom theme.
I’ll leave discussions about creative process and theme design for another post and will assume your design is already finalized. You simply need someone to build it. Let’s dive into how two identical looking outcomes can perform very differently.
What to Look For in Theme Development
Theme development can seem deceptively simple. You just need to make it look like the design concept, right? Truth is there are hundreds of tiny factors that all contribute to the overall quality and performance of a given theme. If these factors are not considered and address it will have an immediate and long-term impact on website effectiveness.
Let’s look at some of the more prominent factors that are impacted by the quality of theme construction.
Today’s users are impatient. More than a few seconds of waiting and they’re likely to leave for your competitors website. A common recommend is a sub two second load time. Optimizing page load time takes a lot of work. Make sure your vendor is considering and testing speed and more importantly performing the necessary steps to ensure a zippy website.
Search Engine Optimization
Construction of a theme can significantly impact search rankings. Code requires proper structure for search engines to easily read content, identify important words and phrases, and find all content on your site.
You may also need structured markup or rich snippets which can enhance your appearance in search and attract more clicks.
The entire point of a content management system like WordPress is gaining control over your website. The interface used to manage your website can suffer from usability issues just like the user facing side. If it’s hard to make changes you’re unlikely to take full advantage of a CMS.
Care must be taken to ensure content is managed from logical places, controls are well labeled and any unused functionality is hidden or disabled to minimize distraction.
For example, I’ve encountered a dozens or so website where content on the homepage was actually managed through WordPress widgets. The widget functionality in WordPress is designed for global elements like sidebars and footers. It’s not intuitive to manage homepage content through widgets. In each case this approach often caused confusion and wasted site managers time.
There are lots of instances where extra effort can make WordPress easier to use, including:
- Generating the appropriate sized images automatically on upload preventing the need to crop them manually.
- Automatically compressing images preventing site slow down and manual shrinking.
- Adding edit links on the front end only visible to logged in administrators preventing the need to hunt for the appropriate place.
- Creating custom settings pages with global options to keep controls in a single, easy to reference place.
The US Census estimates that 1 out of every 5 people have some form of disability. If you think these users aren’t visiting your website you’re likely mistaken. It could be poor vision, reduced fine motor control (making it difficult to use a mouse,) old technology, using spoken navigation, etc… Additionally if you’re a government-funded organization it’s a legal requirement that your site is Section 508 accessibility compliant.
There is no downside to making your website more accessible. It opens your site to a larger audience and even helps with search engine optimization.
Not everyone builds accessible themes because it’s extra work. You’ll want to ensure those building your theme is considering and testing for accessibility.
Not all code is created equality. Beautiful, well thought out and named code is easier to maintain and extend. Websites are living documents and should be updated and improved on a regular basis. If a theme is developed with maintainability in mind additions are easy. If not, even simple changes are difficult, often buggy, time-consuming and expensive.
The theme should separate design and custom functionality. For example if you’re a realtor and have properties on your website, that functionality can be included in one of two places— the theme itself or ideally a separate plugin. This way several years later when you want to refresh the design critical functionality doesn’t need to be extracted or recreated.
Accuracy is an often overlooked aspect of theme development. See design and development are two different skill sets. There are some people can design and develop but it’s much more common to find individuals that specialize in one or the other.
Designers are very intentional about how they craft a website. Font sizes, colors, margins, padding, line-heights, proportions… all of these little details contribute to design quality. If the developer building your theme isn’t trained to notice these details they’re often missed.
For example some text might be a very dark grey but assumed to be pure black. A thirty pixel margin could becomes twenty. A rectangular image becomes square. While seemingly small they all add up and the execution of the design becomes muted and less impactful.
Think of it like this, you grab dinner at your favorite restaurant and have some amazing chillian seabass. It’s the perfectly seasoned and balances bright citrus notes and richness. You return next week and order the same meal. This time doesn’t taste quiet as good. The first dish was prepared by the chef himself and every detail was executed to his vision. The second time a different cook prepared it and they used a touch too much salt, cooked it a tad too long, didn’t use enough pepper and didn’t use enough citrus. It’s the same dish but the result isn’t as vibrant.
For your theme it’s important you find a partner that is trained to see the details and can accurately recreate the concept. At 3.7 Designs we have an entire phase where a designer who can also code reviews the theme and makes hundreds of little adjustments to ensure its accurately executed.
–built theme is well worth the investment but as you can see not all themes are built equally. You need to consider what’s going on behind the visual layer of the site and consider how the theme will be used long –term. If the theme is slow, difficult to administrate and difficult to maintain you won’t get the results you’re looking for.
When commissioning a custom WordPress theme you want to discuss these points with potential vendors to understand how they plan on addressing these needs. To make this easier we’ve put together a downloadable checklist you can use during these discussions.