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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.