Some observations on theme design

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” - Douglas Adams

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good blog design and when to release that design to the world. I’ve ultimatley concluded that I have no good answer for that, but I’ll try to explain my process.

These are just some observations I’ve made about designing WordPress themes.

Designs are never foolproof:

The Douglas Adams quotation above is something every designer should think about. No matter how perfect, no matter what miniscule details you’ve added, there’s always someone that’s going to screw it up for you. Do you think MySpace profiles always looked that ugly?

Designs are never “foolproof,” but some of us try anyway.

I’m constantly trying to think of every situation, every widget, every plugin, or other little piece of Internet matter that I might find on someone’s blog, and I always come across something I haven’t seen before. That little widget that breaks my beautiful theme, but the blogger keeps it on their site anyway.

We can never design for everyone or everything. We can only hope to develop something that will work in every browser, screen resolution, and connection speed.

You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.

Walt Disney

We design for the people, right? I’ve been fortunate enough in the last couple of months to have my themes used by many people and in some very creative ways.

Why am I providing you with this information?

To let you know that a designer’s work is for others. When developing a theme, I always think about how the user will use that theme, and we know from our good buddy Walt Disney that getting people to use your theme is your goal. Douglas Adams tells us that they will ultimately destroy it in some way.

How do we design for "the ingenuity of complete fools"?

I let my users be my lab rats. They’re the best test subjects when it comes to debugging your theme. The first week of any free theme release is a bug-squashing week for me. I let the users do all the testing, and I fix things.

The best way to do this is to release your theme on the weekend to a handful of users, while letting them sort your bugs out. Then, as every theme designer should know by now, release your theme before Weblog Tools Collection updates its early-week theme releases. By then, maybe you’ve sorted out a few of the bugs.

What? Release my themes with bugs?

Well, not bugs that you know about. The point I’m trying to make here is that you must eventually quit testing and release your theme to the world. I know most theme designers have OCD of some sort, but it’s best to keep that in check.

Delay always breeds danger and to protract a great design is often to ruin it.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

There are always bugs, even if they’ve been created by “the ingenuity of complete fools” and not you. Don’t delay your design release because of potential problems. Release it when you’ve completed the project.

Improving your theme:

The reason I make my first week a bug-squashing week is because I know there are things I’ll want to change. There are always ways to improve the design. But, if we procrastinate on the release of the theme based on the assumption that we can still improve it, then we’ll never release the theme.

Almost all quality improvement comes via simplification of design, manufacturing, layout, processes, and procedures.

Tom Peters

If you want to improve your theme, before or after its initial release, then simplify it. Don’t add new features that make things more complicated. One of the reasons I updated my Structure theme after two days was because I wanted to simplify it for the user.

Don’t make the mistake of complicating your design. We should value simplicity above all else in design. People like simplicity.

Creating a beautiful canvas on the Web:

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

Henry David Thoreau

If anyone would have made a great theme designer, it might have been Henry Davd Thoreau. The “atmosphere and medium through which we look” is the Web. It is our duty, if we want to be great designers, “to affect the quality” of the online world.

Final thoughts:

Another great quote I want to leave you with that applies to design is about engineering, but directly applies to theme design.

The engineer’s first problem in any design situation is to discover what the problem really is.


Before you go off and decide to create the next “great” theme, make sure you take a view of the WordPress theme landscape. What’s needed? What hasn’t been done before? What could you do better?

($solving_problems == $innovation && $innovation == $great_theme_design)

Maybe that last bit was uber-geeky, but the point is that you must provide something that’s in need or create something that people will want to need.

I’m not sure how well this post flows, but I wanted to simply let my thoughts flow for one post. What do you think makes a great WordPress theme design? What should be added to this list of things? Better yet, what are you doing to make your themes better? How are you innovating?