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How to Find Good Blog Themes

Posted by on 26th Feb 2009 | 10 comments

No matter what blogging platform you use, you are probably going to want to get away from the default theme or template. Most of the time, the default template is meant to be nothing more than something to let you set up and test your installation, not something intended for actual use.

Though some platforms, such as Blogger, come with a set of extra themes, even those can seem stock considering they are used already on thousands of other blogs.

If you want something that is remotely original, unless you are a master designer and can trivially whip up a theme from scratch, you most likely are going to find yourself searching for a theme that is less common and can be easily converted to your needs.

But what do you look for in a theme and where can you find good ones? The answers are pretty simple.

What to Look For

When looking for a theme or template, many people make the mistake of trying to find a theme that they can drop in and push live without any editing. However, odds are that such a theme does not exist (unless you pay for a custom one) and, if it does, your use of it will simply look stock and unimaginative.

The goal is not to find a “ready to go” theme, but one that is close to what you envisioned. When looking at themes, do your best to be colorblind as colors can be changed trivially on most themes by editing a few CSS elements. The same can be said for logos, which can be changed by simply replacing the image, fonts, backgrounds and borders.

The things you want to avoid, unless you have the needed tools and talents, are themes that have complicated visual elements for which editing would involve heavy lifting in Photoshop or another image editor. Also, themes that will require a great deal of layout work, such as moving columns around or adding/removing elements are likely also a waste of time since it would often be faster to create the theme from scratch.

A theme that has a rough layout but is off in color or has an unattractive logo is more valuable than one with the right colors but the wrong structure. In many cases, you’re better off using a plain theme such as Descartes, Thesis (premium) for WordPress or Minima for Blogger to get started and then add your own visual elements.

Finding Good Themes

Anyone who has done a search through the WordPress theme directory or other large template housing sites knows well that finding a good theme can be like sifting through a mountain of ash in hopes of finding a diamond. High quality free themes are rare as, while many people are eager to offer themes as part of their promotion, few are willing to put any serious time into it.

On these sites, sadly, ratings aren’t always much help. Either due to the fact most themes don’t have a large number of ratings or some form of gaming is going on, weaker themes always seem to be near the top.

So how does one cut through the mess of themes and get straight to the good ones? Here are a few tips:

  1. Find the Rockstars: If you see a blog that you like, find out who designed the theme and see if they have others. Most good theme sites will let you view layouts by designer and, even if they can’t, you can always search for and visit the designer’s site.
  2. Look for Top Lists: Many sites have done lists of themes they consider to be great, such as this one on Mashable for Blogger themes, this one on Smashing Magazine for WordPress themes or this one on Geek Tips for the best Drupal templates. Even if you disagree with the exact judgments, it can introduce you to some of the best designers in the community, letting you follow up on their other work.
  3. Get Suggestions: Find forums and communities and ask for pointers. Describe the look that you want and the users there can often point you toward a good theme or designer that would be a good starting point. Also, don’t hesitate to ask your friends who use the same blogging platform. Many, including myself, have dozens of deactivated themes that they don’t use but may work well for someone else.

The main thing to avoid is simply wading through a long list of layouts looking for something to jump out. Not only can it take hours to find a few themes to test, but it is very easy to miss the truly good themes.

If you get desperate, wading through the morass may be the only approach, otherwise though, it is best to start on the high ground.

Conclusions

The bottom line with themes is that, if you value your site’s originality and image, you’re going to have to invest some time and energy into making it unique. The best a good theme can provide you is a good start.

If you want an example of that, you can take a look at the Mimbo theme, the basis of my site Plagiarism Today. Though you can tell at a glance that my site is based on Mimbo, there are a lot of changes in terms of color, elements, typography among other alterations. Most were either tweaks to my liking or needed elements that weren’t in the default theme.

(Note: Plagiarism Today is based on an older version of Mimbo, not the current 3.0 branch.)

However, it took me several weeks of casual work to make the changes I wanted and several months of testing/feedback to push the theme live. Though the theme isn’t perfect by any stretch, it is relatively unique to my site and easily identifiable as belonging to my site while still definitely being “Mimbo”.

The goal for most blog template designers is, likely, something similar. Since CSS makes it possible to make drastic changes to a site easily, it is no longer important to find the perfect theme, just a solid one.

Even a relative newcomer can likely make the needed changes to make it perfect.


10 comments - Leave a reply
  • Posted by sibaho on 26th Feb 2009

    I love mimbo themes so much. *hope someone helps to convert it in blogspot platform*

  • Posted by Roben Timothy Gomez on 27th Feb 2009

    Well this information will help me in selecting appropriate themes, as always been a trouble in selecting the right theme for the right material.

  • Posted by contact lenses uk on 27th Feb 2009

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  • Posted by Alex Frost on 27th Feb 2009

    Well, I think there’re much more ways to find good blog theme especially for commonly used CMS like Word Press, of course if you don’t know HTML, CSS, PHP, and Graphic design basics your chances lessen greatly, but still… do not try to find exact theme try to find theme that satisfy your needs in whole, i.e. positioning of blocks and elements, and as for color, styles and graphics its not that hard to change them.

  • Posted by Jonathan Bailey on 27th Feb 2009

    Sibaho: It's unlikely that Mimbo will ever come to BlogSpot, the reason being that it requires some pretty advanced scripts and PHP calls. Though I love the Blogger template editor, I don't think it can handle all of the features Mimbo needs.

    Alex: There are a lot more ways, this was just some of the best ones I could fit in a single column. I probably should have made this a multiple-part piece. I agree though that it does pay to know the basics of HTML, PHP, etc. One doesn't have to be a wizard to customize a good theme.

    Roben: Glad I was able to help! Let me know if you have anything specific I can assist with.

  • Posted by Jared O'Toole on 1st Mar 2009

    Generally you can find solid lists of the top 10, 20 or 50 themes that people have made. Usually pretty good.

    When you don't have coding experience it can be a pain to pick a theme that needs even basic work to it.

    Overall it comes down to your content. My advice is get something up, create awesome content, figure out exactly what your doing….then go back and pump up your theme once you decide you want to get serious.

  • Posted by clickktdotcom on 1st Mar 2009

    Thanks for this great article. I looking forward to reading more tips at here.

  • Posted by Madmouse Blog Tips on 6th Mar 2009

    Recently, the Madmouse Blog started to release more WordPress themes. They have come a long way as far in the term of quality in the last couple of years.

    Your article does give me a few ideas of what to consider when I design a new theme, to focus on what people are looking for in the terms of a good theme.

  • Posted by Stephanie'sMomm on 6th Mar 2009

    I'm hoping to move from Blogger to WordPress in a few months and felt overwhelmed by the thought of finding a theme. After reading this I feel like I have a pretty good handle on where to start looking. I especially like "Find the Rockstars." It makes complete sense to start with the themes I've liked on other sites.

  • Posted by joomla web designer on 7th Mar 2011

    AS selecting a right theme as per requirement or rather as per the website is always a major concern the post is really helpful in finding that.