On Designing Generic Themes

A long time ago, a bunch of designers were hired to design templates for Blogger, the biggest blogging platform at that time. These were not just your regular designers. Among them are Douglas Bowman, Dave Shea, Dan Cederholm, and Jeffrey Zeldman. Clearly an all-star designer ensemble.

The task itself sounded simple on paper. I mean, who among us hasn’t created their own free generic themes? If the number of the available themes on the WordPress Free Themes Directory is any indication (1,400+ themes now), we can safely say that plenty of people are capable of creating a generic theme.

However, Zeldman himself admits that it was a really hard design job and he felt that he failed at the task. Why so?

Because they have to design in absence of content.

Creating a generic theme is easy, but making sure it works with all kind of contents people use it with is mighty hard. Design, after all, is problem solving. If the problem itself can’t be well defined, as is the case with designing a generic theme, how are we going to find a solution that fits all?

For example, a lot of themes have a horizontal menu on top. This is about as generic as it gets. Some people might put a few items on it. Some others will have a lot, some will have none, both potentially breaking the design. How are we going to deal with all this? It might be possible, but it certainly isn’t easy. Compare this with designing for a particular website where the number of menu items is well defined.

If we are to create a truly great generic themes, then we will have to face the near impossible task of covering all these use cases.

Zeldman once said that:

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.

Lorem ipsum text, or the Theme Unit Test as we have it in the WordPress world, can’t exactly be called content. Jason Fried of 37Signals said the following about dummy texts:

Lorem ipsum dolor has long been known as the designer’s best friend. We think it should be your enemy. Using lorem ipsum dolor reduces text-based content to a visual design element (a “shape” of text) instead of valuable information someone is going to have to enter and/or read.

The Unit Test itself is useful to test for the most common use cases, but it is not enough for a truly great theme. I don’t think it’s even possible to create that perfect dummy.

So what are we to do?

The best option is to abandon creating generic themes altogether. There are no shortage of those in the Theme Directory, and it’s better to spend our time creating content-specific themes. Photoblog themes, travelogue themes, coming soon page themes, to mention some. We do not work with a specific content per se (we don’t know if the photoblog theme is to be used for wedding or landscape photographers, for example, which would have different requirements), but at least we have a better definition of the problem compared to creating a generic theme.

Furthermore, it can be a good idea to design more content-specific Theme Unit Tests. A Unit Test for photoblog themes will contain a lot of big images and less text, while a Unit Test for magazine/news themes will have a mix of contents with varying categories, thumbnails, authors, a lot of posts in a single date, and so on.

Further Reading

You may also like...

6 Responses

  1. September 11, 2011

    [...] On Designing Generic Themes » [...]

  2. September 11, 2011

    [...] On Designing Generic Themes » [...]

  3. September 22, 2011

    [...] WordPress flavored blogs) has some pretty interesting thoughts on designing generic themes. “The best option is to abandon creating generic themes altogether.” What do you [...]

  4. October 12, 2011

    [...] WordPress flavored blogs) has some pretty interesting thoughts on designing generic themes. “The best option is to abandon creating generic themes altogether.” What do you [...]

  5. October 16, 2011

    [...] WordPress flavored blogs) has some pretty interesting thoughts on designing generic themes. “The best option is to abandon creating generic themes altogether.” What do you [...]

  6. November 4, 2011

    [...] WordPress flavored blogs) has some pretty interesting thoughts on designing generic themes. “The best option is to abandon creating generic themes altogether.” What do you [...]

css.php