The look and feel of your blog has a big say on the first impressions of a reader so it worth investing some time evolving your design as you develop your new blog over the coming months.
In this post we discuss the pros and cons of hiring a designer, paying for an off the shelf theme or using a free one. This post forms part of our 29 debates bloggers have about blogging series.
Look here for more information on designing a blog
Free Blog Themes
Well, you can’t argue with the price! There are 1000s of free templates, styles and themes out there on the Internet. If you look long enough you will eventually find an HTML template, or WordPress theme that looks about right.
There is nothing wrong with using a free theme to get started and in fact whilst you are building a back catalog of posts and finding your way I would actually recommend this as a starting point. Test drive a few different styles and go for the one that grabs you – then get blogging!
The down side of free themes is that they are often inflexible, lack a professional edge and will of course be used by 100s of other blogs around the world. Sooner or later you will want to take your site to the next level.
If you do use a free theme:
- Consider customising it, you can add in your own logo, change the colours and make small changes to the layout without requiring a great deal of technical skill. Don’t attempt to do all this in one go, evolve your theme over time. Check that the themes author allows derivative works.
- If you are using a CMS such as WordPress then make sure you use a theme that allows widgets. This is the easiest way to customise the layout of your site and will allow you to add your own style to the design.
- Remember to keep your site’s design detached from your content, WordPress is very good at doing this and will ensure that if you come to refresh your entire site down the line you can do so just by uploading a new theme.
If you have the time and ability then you can continue to make changes to the free theme (assuming the license allows) and may never need the help of professional designers. This isn’t something you can learn overnight but if you tackle one problem at a time your website’s design will evolve as your blog grows.
Buying a Commercial Theme
I have mixed feelings about commercial themes. Given that these excellent content management systems such as Joomla and WordPress are given away free it seems that commercial theme builders are going against the spirit of free software distribution. The appetite for commercial themes has inevitably encouraged many developers who would have otherwise released their wares for free to sell them on for a fee.
But like I said, I have mixed feelings. Some of these themes are so far ahead of their free competitors that ultimately the price seems worth paying. At the end of the day, the choice is yours!
Advantages of a Professional Theme:
- You will usually get continued support from the developer which can prove worth the investment alone if you are having trouble customising the theme yourself.
- Commercial themes will often come with free upgrades. CMS software such as WordPress undergo several releases each year and often themes need to be updated to use these. A popular free theme is likely to be updated too, but the author won’t have the same financial incentives to get the release out to market quickly.
- Paid for themes are generally better designed and have more customisation features. Of course there are free themes that have highly skilled developers behind them – if you can find one that you like then great!
- These themes are usually easier to find. The authors tend to spend more time and effort marketing their product and so when you are searching for that perfect look it is highly likely that you will hit upon paid for themes first. Finding good free themes takes much more time and effort.
So as you can see, there are some great reasons to invest in a theme but please be aware than there are 1000s of successful blogs built on free ones. Don’t feel like you have to fork out what is often quite a large fee.
Hiring a Blog Designer
Is hiring a professional designer worthwhile? I worked with several professional website designers during my time at a top UK commercial consumer website. I have to say that these guys really knew their stuff and had a great talent for materialising our imagined designs.
Unfortunately the more talented the individual the more expensive they are going to be to hire, and when you start to consider the return on investment compared to purchasing a customisable template off the shelf you have to wonder – is it worth it?
Personally I would leave this until your blog has really taken off. Once the money is coming in and you have some cash to reinvest then it might be a nice treat for your website, but I just don’t feel it is something a beginner needs to consider early on.
How Do you Design Your Sites?
The majority of Blogercise sites are built around WordPress and after using a number of free themes I eventually bit the bullet and purchased a commercial theme from StudioPress. This gave me a taste for what a well designed theme could do.
I eventually moved on to use the Thesis theme which offered a number of advantages:
- Thesis stores a number of customisation options in the WordPress database. Because I use a single WP install that is shared between all my sites I wanted to customise my theme without needing to edit files. Thesis is perfect for this.
- Thesis looks great out of the box. I like simple elegant themes with a clear layout. But with a few clicks of the mouse you can change colours, add columns and a whole range of features. You wouldn’t be able to recognise that some of my sites use this theme!
- I’d rather spend my time building sites than messing around with templates, Thesis has a great community support forum where I can get my questions answered quickly.
Further to this I have a set of standard plugins that allow me to quickly add things like Twitter, RSS, adverts and other useful information around my site through the WordPress Widget interface.
This all makes designing my sites fairly painless and I can then get on with building content. I tend to invest more time into sites that are progressing well, others just get left on a default WP install!