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How much to you need to alter a theme to make it your own?

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I semi-regularly keep my eye out for good sites for sale on Flippa, the website and domain marketplace from SitePoint. I was recently interested in purchasing a discussion forum. I didn’t bid high enough though I spoke with the owner on messenger for a few hours.

In one of our chats I queried who did the design for the forum. I was a little surprised to hear that it was a free theme as the auction stated the design was unique. To which he replied it was unique because he changed a few colours and added a new logo. To the sellers credit, he was very honest and was completely up front about every aspect of the site in the auction. Though this is clearly a grey area with Flippa. Some sellers are just lying and claiming that free themes are unique designs but I think many people genuinely believe that adding a logo to a design makes it unique.

I don’t think a simple logo change makes a a design unique if it has been downloaded by thousands as the rest of the design will be the same. Which raises the question: ‘At what point does a free theme which has been customised become unique?’.

Or perhaps a better question for those who use WordPress would be ‘At what point does a customised free theme look like it is unique?’. Because that’s what most website owners want. They want a unique theme which stands out from the crowd but they want don’t want to spend a lot of money to get it.

How do you make a theme unique?

If I am launching a blog which I will be working a lot on (like this one), I usually try and get something unique developed so that it both presents a professional image and does what I need it to do. Though the majority of small to medium content websites which I build with WordPress don’t need this kind of investment.

In fact, one of my main priorities when building mini sites is to keep costs down low. Which is why I usually start with a free theme or a premium theme under 50 bucks. I can then modify the design to suit my needs.

For small 10 page mini sites I normally don’t modify the theme much because it really doesn’t matter if the design is unique or not. Though for larger sites I like to do more than just change the logo. For example, I’ll move some things around, change some colours, change the fonts etc.

Structure and fonts are two things that need to be modified in my opinion if you want to really change the look of the theme. About 3 or 4 years ago I modified Brian Gardners original Revolution Theme for one of my first blogs. I changed the logo, added some classes of my own to the stylesheet and changed a few design colours.

However, anyone who had ever seen the theme being used elsewhere would have known instantly that I was using the Revolution theme as the content was using the same font size and family for content. More importantly, the structure of the design was the same i.e. the header, main content area, sidebar and footer were the same length as the default design.

I was a big fan of that design however I decided to get my own unique theme designed as I saw other blogs in my niche using the same design, so it was difficult for my blog to stand out. Though I strongly believe if I edited the theme more it would have stood out.

I would love to hear your view on the subject so I will throw up this question to you all: How much to you need to alter a theme to make it your own?


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Comments (4)

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Best of luck with that Mark. If you are unsure about any aspect of modifying the theme please drop by the forums and let me know.

Also, would love to see it once it has been completed. :)

Have a good weekend.


Comment by Mark says:

When I first started with WP, I was surprised that there were themes. I was considering working an entire weekend to make it look the way I wanted it to.

I found a theme that was good enough fairly quickly and modified it a bit. I am not really happy with it yet, but the fact that there was almost no effort was nice.

I am working on my first blog (though I have done websites for other people in the past), and I intend to change just about everything in the theme. We’ll see how that goes.

Have a great weekend!

– mark

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Yeah I think you’re right. I think the simpler the framework, the easier it is to make it your own. I found that most of the framework themes were trying to reinvent the wheel, which made customisation more difficult.

Which is why I think the new twenty ten theme for WordPress 3.0 will prove to be a huge hit. They have stripped away all the crap and designed a simple theme which will be easy to customise.

Comment by Alex Denning says:

Whether it’s clearly distinguishable from the original.

I can spot a Revolution, Thesis, whatever at 10 paces because I’m familiar with the way they work — Thesis has { Comments } and Revolution has the distinctive navigation.

I think unless you’re using a framework that’s more or less blank you’re always going to inherit some of the original styles, so a modded theme can’t ever be really “unique”. It can look fairly different from the original, but that doesn’t make it unique.

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