8 min read
Choosing the right theme for your blog is an important step to setting up your own little online empire. Once you've picked your niche and decided what blog platform to use, the only thing standing in your way of getting your site live is figuring out what you want it to look like.
If you're not careful, you can get stuck on this design and layout phase for a long time. It's often an excuse I hear as to why new bloggers haven't launched yet.
“I just need to tweak the design some more”.
Does that sound familiar?
It's understandable that this hurdle is hard to overcome. Your blog is your baby. You're proud of your content and you want the right blog design to show it off to the world.
When you're just starting out it's usually out of your budget to work with a designer on a custom theme, but that's okay because there's a whole world wide web full of blog themes for many different platforms to pick from. To prevent you from getting stuck in the design phase and to help with the overwhelming number of options out there, here's a guide to picking a great pre-made theme for your blog.
A quick Google search for your platform along with the word “theme” will show you a near-endless list of sites offering blog templates. You'll see a mix of free and “premium” themes (that you'll need to pay for). Generally speaking, the premium themes are better quality than the free ones, but that doesn't mean that every premium theme is guaranteed to be good quality. Nor does it mean that you can't find good themes that are free– you definitely can! For each theme you consider investing your time and/or money in installing, evaluate it according to the following criteria:
Before you begin your search, it's essential to figure out what you actually need from a blog template based on your content. The goal of your blog design is to make your content shine, and to create an enjoyable reading experience for your visitors. To get some ideas of what you might need, take a look at the blogs you love reading (chances are the ones you enjoy reading most are probably your favorite blog layouts too).
Figure out the ingredients of your ideal blog layout and keep hunting until you find a theme that has all the elements you need. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and be sure to keep them at the top of your mind when you're making these decisions. If you run a fashion blog for example, beautiful big photos will be key. And if you're focused more on the writing than the visuals, choose a theme that doesn't rely quite so heavily on photography.
If you're using WordPress, then plugins can often be used to supplement a theme. If you want to be able to showcase your latest video in the sidebar for example and can't quite find a theme that fits what you want, you can use a plugin to add that piece. So if you find a blog template that's nearly perfect, search the WordPress plugin directory to see if that can help you with the finishing touches.
These days, there is no excuse for not having a site that works well on mobile. In October 2016 mobile Internet use surpassed desktop for the first time, according to Internet monitoring firm StatCounter, with 51.2% of traffic coming from a mobile or tablet device. That means if you want your visitors to enjoy reading your blog you had better make sure it works well on small screens.
Most templates will have it noted whether or not they're responsive (meaning they respond to different screen sizes and the layout changes to accommodate, so that your site looks just as great on your phone as it does on your desktop), but you can always check out the example site to make sure by visiting it on your phone or simply dragging the side of your browser in and watching how the theme reacts.
If it does nothing, it's time to put the pretty theme down and walk away to find one that will give your readers a better experience on their phones.
A pre-made blog theme should be a blank canvas for you to fill with your own personality and brand. Try not to fall in love with overly designed themes that have a very specific style to them already. Sure that blog template that comes with lots of graphics already in place in the header and footer may look great, but how will it work with your own content? And if you can't swap those graphics out for ones that match your own look and feel, you could end up having a site that looks exactly like the next blogger who decides to use that theme.
They may look great right now, but it will be hard to create a brand for yourself when your blog looks just like three other sites in your niche. Your content is the most important part of the site so you don't want a theme that overshadows it.
The best pre-made themes are basic in the best way, allowing your content to drive the look and feel. You should be able to edit the colors, maybe the fonts too, and upload your logo to create something uniquely you. Look at examples of the theme in use in the wild to determine how adaptable it will be. If the sites shown have the same basic structure, but all have their own flavor, then you may have found a winner.
When you're going it alone, you'll want very clear instructions for installing your theme. Before you commit to buying or before you waste your time downloading a free theme, read the install instructions and check out what support is available for users. If the theme site offers it, read the reviews too. The best place to find this information is in the Help or Support section of their site.
Are they filled with happy customers? Or frustrated bloggers struggling to get the theme working? This is where purchasing a theme from a reputable site can be a great asset, as many offer to help purchasers through the install process so you won't have to worry about something accidentally going awry!
The sheer number of templates available online can be quite overwhelming, but we’re here to help. Here are a couple of well-respected theme sites recommended by bloggers to begin your search:
In the WordPress.org theme directory you can filter by features, layout, and type of website you want to create. The main directory is full of free themes you can download and install yourself, but they also have a commercial directory with links to sites where you can purchase premium themes that come with some level of support.
This is a theme marketplace where anyone can submit a blog design for others to purchase. The site tells you how many other people have downloaded that theme, and you can also read reviews and comments. Look out for the “Quality checked by Envato” tick to be sure you're getting one that will work well. They mainly show WordPress themes, but also have themes for Blogger, Ghost, Jekyll and Tumblr.
Studiopress has a great reputation amongst WordPress users. They offer a complete package with hosting included, or you can purchase themes on their own. All themes are easy to customize, trustworthy, and robust.
Popular amongst lifestyle bloggers in particular is pipdig. The themes are well-designed, are easy to customize, and come with free installation. Their customers rave about how great their support is too, so it seems like you get really good value for money here.
Now that you've got your checklist, you know what to look for and where to start your search, there's no more excuses not to get your blog up and running!
If you already have your content ready to go, choosing your theme and setting it all up could be done over the weekend. Think you can make that happen? Imagine having your blog ready for the public by next week!
But remember too that you're not stuck with the theme you choose forever. You'll likely need to update your theme as your content and business evolve and you realize you need different things from your site. So don't agonize too much over the decision: pick something well-designed that you can customize and add life to with your content and you'll be good to go.
Download this issue of Tradecraft as a PDF to read and reference at your own pace.