The Theme Changing Process

I’m changing themes today. It’s part of my effort to clean things up. You can fast forward to see the results here.

For a very long time I used Suffusion on both my sites, and would have kept right on using it if they hadn’t stopped updating. When I switched away from it, I decided to go with Customizr on my fun blog, and Moesia here on my business site. I’m looking for something a little faster, less aesthetic, and more practical, so I can apply some of what I’ve been learning lately about expanding readership.

This isn’t going to be a review, or a step-by-step guide. It’s a look at the process I went through, written while I’m processing, and how I arrived at my eventual decisions.

I’m actually going to be trying several themes over the next day or so, to decide which one works best for me. This is going to be time consuming, but I am going to offset the sacrifice somewhat by allowing you folks to come along for the ride.

Moesia

Moesia has a great many things to recommend it, and I’m only abandoning it because the main page loaded too slowly, and occasionally suffered from responsiveness issues. The inbuilt slider plugin never worked, either, although I found a decent alternative. Anyway, it looks really good, beautiful, and I like it a great deal, but it’s not exactly what I need. No hard feelings, but we’re moving along on to different things.

Google’s new update means that responsive themes are no longer nice-but-optional; they’re mandatory.

Vantage

I choose to look at Vantage first, because it features a relatively light load of customization options, which means it should go quickly, and because I wanted to look at the inbuilt plugins. WooCommerce is unlikely to be much use to me, but other aspects.

There’s a “Theme Tour” option, which is not just some quick overview of features, but what amounts to a “Quick Setup” option, and is pretty slick. SiteOrigin earns points for that, lose a few for inserting slides specifically designed to upsell you to their pro version. You get to choose between “boxed” and “full-width” which is actually very cool. While boxed fails to take advantage of large screens, it gives you a pretty high level of control over how site will display on everyone’s devices.

Their responsive menu is behind a paywall, however, and their “bundled” plugins are all the same; stripped down free versions with the best features locked away. You’d need to spend about one hundred dollars to make this theme fully functional.

As a freelancer, I’m hardly opposed to anyone getting paid for their hard work, but SiteOrigin placed too much of what should be basic functionality behind a paywall. If you want me to pay for your theme, I want to see something behind that paywall that the other guys aren’t willing to give me upfront.

Vantage is a pretty slick theme, but, on the balance, I’ll pass.

Boardwalk

Boardwalk gets a special mention. It’s absolutely not what I’m looking for, but it’s a really unique theme, and I think it’s extremely cool. For someone who wants to do a traditional list-of-posts style blog, especially if they’ve got good photography to share along with it, I think it would be a real standout.

Enigma

Another honorable mention, Enigma is no at all right for my needs, but I think it would be a spectacular option for a small business with a physical location. If you own a business and want a simple, cheap, site that still looks good to prospective clients, this theme would probably be a great option for you.

Hueman

This was a moderate possibility for me. The Live Preview didn’t look great, but it seemed, feature-wise, to have a lot of potential, depending on how well it functioned once I’d had time to customize it a bit.

It has a nice top bar menu option, which is great. There’s no reason to make users scroll up to the logo to use the site menu. This isn’t 2013 anymore. The layout is strange, but not without some logic. Social media to the left, other sidebar to the right, main page in the middle. The downside is that this leaves a fairly constrained main content.

In my particular case, since I’ve made extensive use of custom/conditional sidebars, it’s not much of a selling point, but in general it’s a very sound design decision. The inbuilt plugins leverage this design, and they’re really quite nifty. The Alx Tab plugin is spectacularly function. It shows recent posts, favorite posts, recent comments, and a tag cloud, in four clickable tags. This saves space an eliminates four Jetpack plugins in one fell swoop, while actively improving on the underlying concept. The only downside is that that thumbnail options are limited, and look pretty mediocre  as a default setting.

Hueman was much better than I expected, and, as I moved on to trying the rest of the themes, it gets serious consideration for permanent status.

Isola

Isola is a generally solid theme, with nothing too spectacular to its name–except the menu. Instead of a bar menu, it has an expandable column menu which is slick, follows you as you scroll, and doesn’t clutter the screen. This means you can use hugely more expansive menus without degrading user experience. That’s pretty cool! But it gets better: this includes the sidebar! So you can have a full-featured sidebar and menu without cluttering up your content!

This smooth workflow jumped Isola from “Meh” for me to, “The one to beat.”

The biggest caveat is that layout control is being a paywall. I can’t imagine why. The awesome advantage of being able to use the unique sidebar and menu features is that it allows for a completely functional full-width content display . . . but you can’t create full-width pages! This ended up being the deciding factor in not using Isola as my permanent theme.

Make

I really like how the individual blog posts display in Make. The featured image is bold, visible, and intense, while the screen is clean of distractions. Basically, it’s a very read-oriented plugin, and that appeals to the writer in me. It also has a dizzying array of options to customize the theme outside of the paywall.

The default position of the menu is cluttered, confusing, and wastes valuable screen real estate. Luckily, the menu can be moved to a bar above the header. Still perplexingly, it adds below the search bar. Basically, this means you have an inch at the top of the screen being used for nothing. Given the overwhelming importance of placing content above the break, this is a stupid design. Users never see things they have to scroll to find. I thought that space might be for The Theme Factory’s social plugin icons, but, upon adding them, they did not display there.

This theme is almost great.

Evolve

Evolve (apparently the name of two different themes) was one of my top two choices working off the “live preview” options. I don’t quite like how the static front page looks. Those awkward gray hovering shadows which display by default between content boxes would be a deal breaker, I knew from the outset.

Overall it’s an extremely cool theme. Lots to play around with, a lot of neat ideas. Great blog layout options, too. Easily one of the most full-featured themes out there.

There are a lot of things I don’t like about it, but I think I might be able to make it work.

Moesia Again

After having gone through all these other themes, I went back to poke around Moesia with fresh eyes. On the balance, stil not quite what I’m looking for.

Evolve Again

I’ve decided to try out Evolve. I’ve started by disabling most of the features built into it. It’s too big a block of work to get everything perfect at once, so I’m going to be customizing and enabling features over the next week or so, and testing out how they work for me.

Hopefully, this will be the last theme change for awhile, but I’ll have to use it for a bit and see how it performs in action. It’s a real bummer there’s no control over which order the three sliders appear in. Maybe they have widget functionality, and I just haven’t found it yet. Like I said, I’ve got a lot of poking around to do.

WordPress’ greatest advantage over other platforms is flexibility. There’s a lot to change here, but it’s an almost alchemical process, turning lead into gold–or in most cases silver into gold. You get as close as you can, and then you start trying stuff until it works.

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