You don’t need any design skills to create a great looking website.
WordPress gives you the structure and functionality, then you simply install your preferred Theme to apply a colour scheme, typography, layouts and styles. There are tens of thousands of themes available and most are free to use.
Many of the free themes are Lite versions of a Premium version though, so you will generally find the Premium themes look and feel a little better.
That said, if you take your time to find the right theme and make a few tweaks yourself, the free themes should work fine for most people.
Here’s a few tricks to help you select the perfect theme:
Always look for a live demo. There is a Preview option within WordPress, but it really doesn’t give you much on an idea how it will look installed on your site with your content. Usually in the info section though, you’ll find a link to a demo, but if you don’t just look for the vendors website or domain name and go find it!
Have your website laid out before you start! You can’t make a decision with an ’empty’ website. A theme can look great on the preview, but until you put in some pages and posts, set up your menus and add a few widgets to your sidebar and footer areas, you’re really just guessing.
Know what features and elements are most important. We’ll talk about these next, so pay attention and think about the site you want to build and the experience you want to offer your visitors… and which of the following elements are going to help you make that happen…
Key Website Elements
Here’s a very quick run through of the main elements you’ll have in any website, and a few notes on how WordPress manages them and your Theme will style them…
Pages & Posts
Pages are for static content: Information you’ll want to make easily available to all your visitors, forever. This is the content you add to your menus so people can always find it easily… think contact pages, about us, a portfolio page etc.
Posts are for dynamic content: Content that’s of interest now, but will be eventually be replaced by more current info. Think business announcements, travel plans, samples from a recent shoot, reviews of new equipment, video clips, comments on a current news items etc.
A lot of people get these mixed up and run into troubles, so when we start talking about content make sure you are clear on the difference and the appropriate place for your content types.
One way it to remember that Posts get listed on Pages. ie your Blog Page is a list of your most recent Posts.
Each Page on your website has a few common elements that are managed in one place to control how they appear across the site…
The Header Area: usually a logo or website title, often a tagline, a navigation menu, sometimes some social icons, an ad banner or search form. It will all depend on your them and your choices setting it up.
The Footer Area: usually some contact information, links to your legal pages and a copyright message. Most themes will also let you add Widgets here… small modules that add specific content in one or more colums in the footer area.
The Sidebar Area: optional, but if used, you add content using Widgets. You can create multiple sidebars, so you can use different sidebars/widgets on different pages … ie one set of links etc for your blog pages, and a different set for your static pages.
Widgets: commons ones you would have seen are a list of your most recent blog posts, recent comments, a search box, ad banners etc. A lot of possibilities, but don’t get carried away… keep it simple and stay focused on adding value for your visitors.
Menus: your main navigation menu is usually built into the theme. So you create a menu, add the required links, and assign it to a menu location… and the theme does the rest. You can create additional themes though and use widgets to add them to your pages as required.
Layouts: most themes now come with a couple of different templates that you can apply as a default for the entire site, or to any page individually. As an example few people want a sidebar on their home page, so they use a Full Width Template there, but then use a layout with a sidebar margin area for all their other pages. Premium Themes tend to offer a lot more templates, and you can even create your own if your theme doesn’t provide the layout you need.
Body: Of course in the middle of all this is your Body Content Area. Each Page or Post is created by adding text, images, videos etc via a Text Editor… and then styling it accordingly. The other elements are rendered when the page is viewed. This keeps it simple for you, as you focus on adding the unique content on each page or post, knowing that the rest of the display is already taken care of.
Customising Your Theme
The WordPress Customiser: This is now a standard dashboard to set up any themes that you’ll download from the free WordPress Archive. (Basically if a Theme designer wants their theme listed on WordPress.org they have to use it).
Personally I hate it! It’s an attempt at making a one-size-fits-all manager for every theme out there, even though they can be offering wildly different features and functions. To me it always seems slow, cramped and clunky…
That said, it will walk you through all the key settings, with a preview version of the site visible as well, so you should use it for your initial set up at least.
Premium Themes quite often do not make use of it and have their own Settings Page… which is usually faster, easier and more intuitive. You’ll also find some themes are getting around the WordPress requirements by controlling their settings using a Plugin… which is a big improvement in my book.
Personally when I’m searching for a new Theme, I’ll give preference to themes that offer stand alone settings… Theme Options in the screenshot below. This shows the handy set of filters you can use to narrow your results when you start searching the WordPress Themes Directory:
Choosing a Theme
When you first start looking, I’d suggest you keep it simple though, and just pick something from the Popular listing. Anything you find there will be functional, reliable, simple and quick to set up.
Chances are you’ll change it before you’re done, so our approach is to grab anything that looks OK, and worry about a final selection later on… when you have a good amount of content in place… so you can see exactly how it looks.
There a lot of Directory Sites that have some great looking WordPress themes, but do be a bit careful to read the fine print as many will require an additional payment, or even a subscription if you want updates.
Personally I use Envato’s ThemeForest when I specifically need a premium theme, as I am purchasing from the creator, and they usually include lifetime free updates. Lots of good options there and definitely worth a bit of browsing time when you’re ready to choose your permanent theme.
Keeping It Fresh
Of course the other advantage of this is, you can change the entire design of your website, any time you like, with just a few clicks. Just keep in mind, you will get tired of how your site looks long before your visitors do!
In fact, they’ll generally be more comfortable if it doesn’t change too much each time they come back.
So I generally make minor tweaks to keep ti fresh and I only make these kinds of drastic changes when I’m taking a website in a whole new direction. If I want to create a new ‘brand’ of sorts and really want my visitors to know it, a change of theme is super effective.
Be aware that most theme changes will require a little work to reassign your menus, reset your widgets and sort out any header images or sliders you might be using. Proceed with caution and make a backup before you start because things don’t always go smoothly!
These are becoming more and more common in a lot of themes, especially Premium Themes. They are basically drag-and-drop page editors that let you add all kinds of pre-configured content blocks to your pages, that can be very useful if you are making a lot of complex pages. The trade off is there’s a lot of code goes into making them work so the pages are often huge files that can be slow to load and even slower to work with.
Personally I only really use them on ‘marketing’ websites where I need a long form sales pages or a lot of different squeeze or opt-in pages.
There is a bit of a learning curve involved, so for now I’d have to suggest you just find a theme with a good home page design that meets your needs as-is, because most people won’t need this sort of design power when they’re starting out. You can always add a stand-alone Page Builder plugin later on if you need it.
Your Design Checklist:
This next section is simple a list of items you might need or want to include ion your website. They’re here to give you an idea of what’s possible and let you start to design a layout for your site.
Putting It All Together
Once you start to get a feel for what you want to offer your visitors, I find the easiest way to design your layout is a simple sketch, something like a cross between a flowchart and an organisational chart.
This lets you put the pages into some sort of logical hierarchy, that you can then test that by imagining how your different visitor types will move through it. ie. From arriving to your home page, finding the content that most interests them, and then completing whatever task you have in mind for them?
There are plenty of free and paid software options for doing this… and I’ve spent quite a few dollars on some of them over the years… but most of the time I still end up just sketching it out on a piece of paper…
Once you’ve done that, things will move along very quickly, so make sure you spend a bit of time on this now, and get clear on what you’re building before you start. Of course nothing here is set in concrete and you can make as many changes as you want as you go, but it’s always easier to complete a journey if you know where you’re going.
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