The web designer's guide to WordPress

WordPress evangelists Coyier and Starr share essential tips in their book Digging Into WordPress

WordPress is the world's #1 publishing platform. Today's web designers, from beginners to seasoned pros, are picking WordPress to get the job done. As for myself, I'm on the bandwagon and I think you should be too.

But this proliferation isn't all puppies and roses. With any platform with a community of this size, it begs the question: what's this doing to the web? To answer that question, let's look at how WordPress works in practice.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the front-end is based on themes. The default download of WordPress comes with two themes that almost nobody uses. As an alternative, you're offered a themes gallery with over 1,000 free ones that you can browse, download and use.

You can do this from the Admin area, so even a completely non-techie user can browse, install and activate a new theme with no knowledge of fancy things such as FTP.

So what's in that directory of 1,000 themes? Mostly junk. I hate to be harsh, since anyone who has built and submitted a theme to that directory is certainly trying to do their best (and isn't making any money). But I've just looked at the top three themes and thought: yuk, yuk … meh.

Quotes on design

DESIGN KNOWLEDGE: Quotes on Design is a WordPress powered site using the lovely Fontin font and the WP Cufon plugin

When writing a post in WordPress, you title it, write it, categorise it, tag it, add media and publish it. You can set up links. You can publish 'static' pages. Each of these features is invaluable. Because they're there, they get used. And because they get used, themes cater to them.

That means you see an awful lot of 'tag clouds' and nested lists of categories and pages on WordPress sites. Does every WordPress site need a tag cloud? No – 90 per cent of them are useless.

WordPress is proliferating certain navigational structures whether we need them or not. The fact is that most people using WordPress aren't designers. In fact, many of them specifically chose WordPress because they didn't have to be.

This is in contrast to other CMS systems such as ExpressionEngine, where however nice it is once it's up and running, you need to be a bit of a code wrangler in order to build a site around it. So in answer to our question, "What is this doing to the internet?", you could argue that, design-wise, there are a heck of a lot more mediocre websites out there.

But is that fair? What would these people's sites be like if WordPress didn't exist? Even uglier? Non-existent? It's speculation.

We've all seen WordPress-based sites that are clunky. But it's not WordPress's fault! WordPress is a tool and a very good one: so good that nearly anybody can use it.

And furthermore, there's a distinction to be made between, where you're intentionally limited in what you're able to do, and, the home of the self-hosted, open source WordPress.

The .org option

So what can WordPress do for designers? A lot, my friends! First and foremost, WordPress is a CMS.

Like any CMS, it abstracts content away from everything else. Remember why we use CSS to style websites? We use CSS because it abstracts design away from content. Want to make the background of your website red? Change it in one place in your CSS and every single page of your site is now red.

Using a CMS does that same thing, by abstracting away content from HTML. Think that sidebar on the right looks better on the left? Just change the template.

Just as important as what WordPress does do, is what it doesn't. It doesn't impart a particular markup upon you. It doesn't care what JavaScript library you use. It doesn't care if your site is two pages, or a content-laden monster.

Here's a list of things WordPress is really good at. We'll look at each one in more depth after.

Designing with self-contained themes is a great concept and WordPress makes it easy. 

The Admin area is beautiful and intuitive. This is good for both you and clients.

Custom Fields and Page Templates make just about anything possible.

WordPress makes nice URLs.

It's easy to display anything you want.
If it's in the database, you can control and display it.

The community is huge, so support is there and the plug-in library is indispensable.

Using themes

The whole concept of themes seems obvious now, but it's an important part of what makes WordPress such a smart system to work with.

In your WordPress directory, there's a folder called wp-content, within that, a directory called themes. Every subdirectory therein is a WordPress theme. A theme can be as simple as an index.php and a style.css file. Even if those two files were blank, that's a perfectly valid theme.

The cool thing is that these themes are self-contained. This means you can have 10 themes in here and switch back and forth with ease. Installing a new theme is as simple as uploading a new folder to the themes directory and clicking to activate it. There are no other dependencies.


TEMPLATES: All page templates available in your theme will be available in a drop down menu

There are some practical things that make theming so awesome. You can serve one theme to regular site visitors, and a different one to yourself. Using the NK Theme Switch plug-in (, this is easy.

The real beauty here is when you're redesigning a site. You can do it live, without interrupting anything for regular visitors until it's ready. This means you can design with 100 per cent real content, not lorem ipsum garbage.

And what's extra cool is that you can make secret links to send people, enabling them to see the site with the theme for a limited time.

Your site's history is preserved with themes. Every time you redesign, just copy the folder from before (or start a new folder from scratch). This gives you a living history of your site for posterity.

Themes make it possible for you to play around with your site in non-destructive ways. If you like how your site is right now, you could duplicate the theme and activate that new copy, then alter anything you want. If you like it, keep it. If not, go back to the old theme.

Finally, you're probably aware that free themes aren't the only option. There's an entire booming economy around 'premium' WordPress themes. Whatever your opinion about that is, the fact is that these themes are generally of much higher quality and are available to you at any time.