WordPress 101: Getting Started with Customizing Themes

I love WordPress themes. I love how beautiful they are, how easy it is to try out new things–oh, I am such a fangirl.  While I find working with themes pretty intuitive, as I watch my students (yes, I have them, in real life),  I can see that themes can be a bit perplexing and difficult at first. I haven’t yet found a video that is clear and helpful–that doesn’t go too fast or try to sell you stuff.

I thought I would take a break from the more difficult research tasks I have on Pinterest and SEO, and add a short series on understanding WordPress themes.   If you’re curious about WordPress or getting into blogging, this post and those that follow in this series will help you understand some of the very basics.

Starting out in WordPress:  Dealing with Themes

Users of WordPress.com are given a default theme when they sign up.  They can change that theme, but figuring out what we want to change it TO is a bit of a struggle.  Most newbies page through the possible themes provided by WordPress and just get worried, or frustrated, or overwhelmed.   A few brave souls just get out there and  start trying things. That’s a good way to get started. Don’t be scared.  But do have an idea about what you want to accomplish if you’re going to sell goods and services. If what you’re going to sell is eyeballs on your page (advertising),  well, just move along, good sir.  Nothing for you to see here. 🙂

Sites that sell goods and services need strong navigation.  We need good menus and sub-menus so our readers can find our content, including the related content.  In our example, we’re creating a website/blogsite for a brick and mortar photography company that wants to engage customers and get into online sales in the long run. For now, our customer is just looking to create an online presence. Later, he’ll be able to figure out how he wants to sell his services and products.

Here’s a mockup site of this problem for teaching purposes. My student chose Boardwalk by Automattic.  It does have a strong visual design, suitable for photography.

First, let’s explore our existing theme. You can do this by hitting the CUSTOMIZE button, right night to the THEMES menu option under “Personalize”

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Here’s a screenshot for our mock-up.  We have nothing in the posts yet–this theme created five dummy posts for us to edit.  This is what we see when we hit the Customize button.

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See that little “need help setting up your site” link?  Each theme comes with extensive help files (made by the creator) to help walk you through the customization of your site.  They explain the features and help walk you through the options.

But first, here’s where you need to start: Site Identity.

Site Identity

We all start out by creating the site title. This should be pretty self-explanatory, but there are all kinds of little bits and pieces.  This mockup we’re creating is for a brick-and-mortar business, so providing the location of the business as the tag line helps in two ways:  It helps people visiting know where the brick and mortar building is located. AND it helps the web crawlers from Google, Bing and other search engines to identify where to associate this business.  Use the tag line to help people understand what your site is about — and help crawlers to “bin” your site in ways that improve your search engine optimization.

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I have a little “stand in” logo here. You can create these things in Canva or Crello, very easily.  The Site Icon will replace the WordPress icon in the browser tab when viewers drop by.  It helps you stand out from all the other blogs the viewer might be looking at.

Setting your site identity first is helpful as this information won’t change as slip on theme after theme, like new skins. When you try out new themes, site identity isn’t going to change.  Other things will.

Colors, Fonts, and Header Images

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Theme Customizations

Some of these customization choices are fairly straightforward, others will need more work and more knowledge. You can play with color and fonts to your heart’s content.  When you try out new themes, you may find that the colors and fonts  you chose for Theme A in terms of fonts and colors is not quite right for Theme B.

Headers, however, are not part of all themes. I’m pretty attached to my daisy header. When I started trying out other themes and it DISAPPEARED as an option, well, I wasn’t happy. I’ve since grabbed it and personalized it, for future changes in my theme.

Menus, CSS and Widgets are a bit more advanced topics that I plan to cover shortly.   But before I close this post, I’m going to cover one last topic in Theme Customization: Homepage Settings.

Homepage Settings

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You have two choices in most themes for your homepage settings:  you can have your latest posts show at the top of the screen, or you can have a static homepage.  A static homepage is good for lots of reasons: it can help navigation, it can introduce us to our audiences, or it can just make your site really pretty and engaging.  I’m currently using the old-style “latest blog posts first” setting (the classical blog), because I’m building up content and establishing direction. I’m not ready for a static page just yet.

One day, my static page might include: links to e-books I’ve written; training classes I’m giving; or other services or products I provide. Our brick and mortar client might want to put up a schedule for booking portrait appointments, portrait packages he offers, and special discounts.

Next up, we’ll cover creating Menus.   Hope this was helpful.


Author: Lola

Recovering academic, real-life, honest to cornflakes anthropologist (Ph.D. and fieldwork and everything), tech-head and social media researcher.

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