Words of Advice: The Tragedy of Theme Addiction

WordPress, despite my carping about it, is a wonderful platform. It pulls together underlying technologies, provides workflows, and establishes standards & conventions that bridge the gap between flexibility and ease of use fairly well, with the result that a wide range of people can use it successfully (not just coders, or designers, but even writers).

But of course, it has a dark side, a scourge that you rarely hear mentioned: I’m talking about “theme addiction” something that even the Jesus-like Matt Mullenweg himself cannot offer salvation from.

Matt Mullenweg, the fount of all things WordPress. (
Matt Mullenweg, the fount of all things WordPress. (“Matt Mullenweg 01” by Ronny Siegel – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

What’s a theme anyway? WordPress, like most modern software, separates the guts (for instance, the database engine that manages all the content) from presentation to the user, that is, the visual design. If you have ever customized your browser to have a sports logo, or a kitten, or like mine with the Royal Opera House you’ve used a theme. They show up in operating systems, programs, and mobile devices just to name a few, and they are an integral part of WordPress.

WordPress themes control the visual appearance of your site, layout, color, type, etc., and also have big implications for the functionality–themes work with (or don’t) key features (e.g, responsive design, sidebars, animated backgrounds, featured images, whatever). All that is to the good, and themes are even fairly easy to build from scratch, also on the whole a good thing.

But here comes the problem: there are now many thousands of these buggers. There is a whole “theme ecosystem” with themes for every purpose under http (although rule 34 of the Internet does not seem to yet apply, there is no porn about WordPress themes, at least not yet). WordPress.com offers 359 just for their hosted service. Themeforest (which admittedly handles more than just WP themes) boasts over 19,000; put “unique” in as a search term for WordPress themes and you get a cool 978. WooThemes, now part of the WordPress mother ship Automattic, has 50 odd, and Elegant Themes, of which I’m particularly fond has more than a dozen. And this is just the beginning.

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If you are not surfeited with this, you can always build your own theme based on one of the many, many frameworks. It’s not hard if you know a little CSS, and even if you don’t the world is full of themes and variations (technically called “child themes”) to explore.

It’s the web in classic form: solutions in search of a problem. Faced with the simple task of starting a blog, it is easy, nay almost inevitable, to get sucked into theme shopping and never return. (If this is combined with Battlestar Galactica addiction, the results could be dire).

Now, the sane thing to do with this paradox of choice, is to follow the advice on the WordPress codex: if you are thinking about starting a blog, start with your content goals, think about your audience, pull together some sample content (photos, posts, whatever), work through that, spending the majority of your time planning and doing content (be that writing, taking pictures, doing your podcasts, whatever.)

The graph should look something like this.

Content V. Theme
Good! More time planning than theme shopping.

But instead, this happens: you say to yourself, “I’m going to do a travel blog, yeeessss!” which pretty much counts as your entire planning phase and you immediately plunge into a whirlwind of theme shopping. You find the “Adventure ” theme, the “El Greco” theme, there’s “Magellan,” and “Voyage,” and, as Mrs. Lovett says, “I’ve only just begun…”

And your graph suddenly looks like this.

You have been sucked into the theme shopping vortex, beware.
You have been sucked into the theme shopping vortex, beware.

Once you have been sucked in there is very little escape, for you see even after you have “chosen” a theme (or themes, you can download as many as you like and test them out), then a whole new hall of mirrors opens up and you can start dicking around, oops I mean “configuring” your themes because almost any theme comes with seemingly endless bobs and bits that you can customize. If that’s not enough to feed the craving–born of the delusion that you are actually doing productive work–you can probably often mess around with the CSS too, download some fonts, work out a background image…

This, like infinite scroll, can go on and on, and at the end of it, you are naturally too exhausted to write, photograph, or record a podcast, so you step gingerly away, and “Hello, World!” is all your blog has, and may have, for days.

Reader, I have been there. I have a ‘sandbox’ WordPress installation on my laptop using MAMP, which I tell myself is just my little safe test bed for screwing around with all things WordPress, but in truth, it’s my little “theme meth lab” where I can download theme after theme, those I buy, the freebies, frameworks for child themes, tools for building your own, and tinker away and away and away. (I do this for my blog, even though I’m hosted on WordPress.com, which gives you perfectly good themes, many for FREE, and in any case limits you to those that are safe and compatible with the current release.)

And safe too…this is another little dark chapter of theme addiction. There are some themes that are easy to hack, (and it’s wise to consider any site on the web fodder for pretty much constant automated attack). There are also some that come pre-loaded with malicious code, programmed to use your site as a zombie, harvest user info, or worse. So this adds a soupçon of spy thriller to the hunt, what lurks behind that glamorous and oh-so-responsive slider? Could it be a dark past and back end that will send your users’ data to Minsk or a dank basement in Cleveland?

The mind, or at least, my mind, reels. In truth, you shouldn’t get any free theme from a sketchy site, or one without a user community and support. If you don’t understand how to use the theme checker, you shouldn’t fool with any but the built in themes or those on WP.com to start with.

So that’s a taste of theme addiction. If you’ve been involved in WP and avoided it, congratulations! We won’t be looking for you at the next Theme-aholics Anonymous WordPress Meet-Up. But if you have fallen prey to this timewaster, here is advice courtesy of a graphic designer I know. Now in his 80s, Mo Obermann taught and practiced graphic design in NYC for many years, running his own firm in the Mad Men era. One summer, I helped the now self-styled “artist in reticence”  get Photoshop on his computer, and when we looked at the long list of typefaces available he asked me how many fonts I thought he used in his 40 plus year career. Before I could answer, he shouted, “Four!” “Pick a type face, learn it, and do your work with it.”

So follow Mo’s advice, slightly updated for the WordPress world: do your content plan first. (Really, don’t do anything until you have your plan down in some kind of form that makes sense to you–the codex recommends ink and paper, something I endorse. At a minimum write out what your editorial goal is and who your audience is.) Then make a list of characteristics and requirements for the way you want your site to appear and what you need it to do. (For example, clean type design, light color-neutral background, display photos and texts, work on mobile etc.)

Now take a deep breath, and search on one source (WordPress.com is my recommendation, even if you are self-hosting, you can generally still get those themes, and you know Automattic has blessed them so the hacker in Cleveland is out of luck), and pick three. (Okay okay, if you really can’t help yourself, go for four.)

With your three (or four) give yourself a day or two total to audition all of these, working with your sample content. Then commit to one and implement it by the end of that week. Make a deal with yourself that it will be on your site for at least 30 days. Sign “the pledge” that you will not have “a drink from the theme shopping bar” during that period.

(It’s also really good to commit to posting something every day for the first thirty days. I’m a little erratic now, but the fact that I’m able to keep up my blog at all is due in no small part to making sure I posted regularly in the first few months).

Then, if you get to the end of the month, and you are thinking, “jeez-o-flip, I really wish I had a better theme,” then write down what “better” means in practical terms, and, with this in hand, go search for no more than three more candidates. Audition, then implement within the week, just as before.

Whatever happens, do as I say, not as I do: don’t spend time theme shopping that you could be writing, photographing, producing video, or whatever it is that floats your blogging boat. WordPress is a content management and publishing tool, give it some content to manage and publish! Don’t give in to that siren song of … wait, just a sec, I just got an email about a new theme called Cyanotype…gotta check it out, it’s got this ‘old photo’ vibe going, and I love that….

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