How to Select a Design Template — Important Considerations Most People Forget to Make When Choosing

Photo adapted from “Hot and cold” by Raxon Rex (Flickr, Creative Commons).

Today, I’d like to discuss various things you should be thinking about while selecting a template for your web site. Before we begin, please know that you do not have to use a pre-designed template at all. You may certainly design your own and have that ported to your CMS. But, in all practicality, it’s simply more affordable to start with a template, as the majority of the design work is already done — and done well.

Here are the top 10 considerations (in my humble opinion, anyway) to keep in mind when making your selection online.

  1. Know the best pre-designed theme companies! Personally, I recommend RocketTheme, makers of the Gantry design platform.
  2. View their templates, opting for the most current as you can. Most designs these days will be responsive, meaning that the site will look good on many platforms and devices (e.g., desktops, tablets, phones, etc.). Theme designers get better over time, and the code improves as they mature. So, again, look at their most current releases first.
  3. View the variations! So many times, people say, “Oh, I saw that template but didn’t like it.” However, they may have not seen preset variations that many templates have built in. Sometimes, these variations dramatically alter the appearance of a given template. For example, a template may have a light and a dark version, versions with alternate built-in backgrounds and colors, and so on. We’ll have more to say on this general topic, below. But, look out for variations, and view them!
  4. Keep in mind that you do not need to use *all* features shown. Template providers can’t possibly know exactly what you’re going to do with your particular web site. So, they like to show off various capabilities and features. A lot of times, this translates into ultra feature-rich looking web home pages, which may look a little intimidating to someone with, say, a simple business web site project. You may not have enough content to fill out every single feature shown in a template demo. But, that’s okay because you do not need to use all features shown. More on this in a bit…
  5. Keep in mind that photographs shown are generally not included. When it comes to photos, template providers are actually trying to show you the potential of their design — not offer you an exact representation of what you’ll get. In general, they’re using photos as example placeholders and, moreover, those photos are licensed to the template providers for that sole purpose. So, don’t be surprised if you purchase a theme and you don’t see the example photos. you’ll need to supply your own.
  6. Try to look *beyond* the template. Consider your needs. Are you building a blog? A corporate site? An ecommerce or product-focused site? Try to look at your needs more broadly and then re-look at the candidate template. While you may be taken by a particular design, you should also ask yourself: Will my content fit into this web site? Sometimes, if you’re not a web developer, this can be tough to determine. So, don’t be afraid to ask your developer for some recommendations along these lines. Honestly, web developers can’t really successfully select a template until they understand your business and your objectives for your site.
  7. Consider color schemes. While colors can be customized dramatically (and often quite easily), some color changes can end up taking your developer significant time. Be sure to ask him or her if you’re not sure about the work required by the customizations you may want. As an example of a difficult color scheme change, imagine a template that has 4 or 5 lighter-toned color variations. So, the template may offer a pastel yellow, blue, red, green, and purple. Seems highly customizable, right? But, what if your corporate color is a dark blue? You may be thinking, “What’s the big deal — just change that color to dark blue!” Only, in this case it isn’t that easy because all of the text shown over the example washed-out colors (say on page backgrounds) is black — which shows up perfectly well on pastel or light-toned colors. But, ever see a black piece of text superimposed on a navy blue background? So, in that case, the color would need to be changed and also the text color. This may also mean having to change the link styles. And, if it’s a menu, it gets even more complex. So, again, if you’re not sure, ask your developer.
  8. For photos, remember that, if the template shown features *large* photos, then you’ll need to have access to similarly large-sized original photos that you or your developer will need to crop to the specs called for by the template. In general, photos can be enlarged a little. However, as you probably know, it doesn’t take too much before your photos become blurry if you try to go from a small original to a significantly larger size. Be open minded about the photos, as well. If you’re using a template that calls for specific-sized photos, many times this means that they’ll need to be cropped, and you’ll either need to do this or trust your developer’s artistic discretion.
  9. Be aware of the template’s built-in logo area. While the spacing in most templates is easily adjusted, some people have logos that are dramatically vertically or horizontally oriented, which can cause web template problems. Also, in general, you’ll want access to your original logo files, as well (which makes customizing it for your web site much easier). Usually, these files are in Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or some similar format.
  10. Keep in mind that home pages often look *significantly* different from deeper web pages (e.g., “About Us” pages, “Contact” pages, blog pages, etc.). And product pages and storefronts also generally look different. So, be sure to look around a good bit at the various pages (blog-style feeds examples are usually included in template demos, and are pretty good examples of basic internal site pages) to ensure that you’re happy both with the home page and the inside-page layouts.
  11. Bonus item: We probably didn’t discuss this enough, above, but keep in mind that (almost) everything about a given template can be changed and/or customized for your needs. Try to think of templates as handy *starting points* for your projects. Of course, also keep in mind that the more you make changes to a pre-designed template, more time it takes by your designer to make those changes. But, most clients request some deviationas / alterations, as everyone’s needs are unique.

I suppose the bottom line here is that it really can pay off to have a web developer’s opinion during this early phase of your web site’s development. If you plan ahead, you’ll likely save yourself both time and money.

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at]