WordPress themes – sponsorship & usability

Design for the user In most cases bloggers are not coders, nor are they CSS guru’s who can put together a look to wrap around their words and ideas; and this is where theme designers come to the rescue. Without them and their creativity; in most cases anyway, the blogging world would be a much more drab and dreary place  to wander through. With WordPress especially there are thousands of themes for us talent inhibited folks to pick from; a task that can seem quite daunting when first laying out your blog idea.

While most of these designers come to our rescue by letting us use their themes freely many will gladly accept donations to show your thanks; or some will only charge a comparatively small fee. Recently though, there has been a growing number of designers who actively sell sponsor links on their themes in order to be paid for their work.

This movement has started a rather heated discussion concerning the pro’s and con’s of sponsorship links. While Duncan Riley reflects on the hypocrisy of WordPress over the matter, other’s like Blogging Pro News and Weblog Tools Collection square off on opposite sides of the whole sponsored links issue. For myself I’m not sure how I stand as I believe that good designers should be paid for their work if that is what they want. Even with sponsored themes, as long as it is plainly stated and not done to promote questionable companies; but even more importantly if the theme is of a quality that deserves to be paid for.

For me this is the biggest problem of sponsored themes as it has created a flood of cookie cutter themes most of which from the point of usability and readability are shit. Plain and simple. I can’t count the number of days or weeks that I watched the posts both Blogging News Pro and Weblog Tools Collection for new theme release announcements; or scrolling through page after page on the WordPress theme repository trying to find a theme that would work for me on WinExtra. Even the one WinExtra is currently sporting needed some; and still does, major CSS hacking to bring it to a point where for me it was useable.

The thing that that I really wondered about; and still do, is do any of these theme designers ever really use their creations, do they even try reading a real blog with the theme in place; and I don’t just mean the typical lorem ipsum generated text but real world blogger posts. Sure I understand all about the need for artistic styling that some blogs need (milo produces some of the best of these type themes) while others need corporate style themes; but quality themes from artistic to corporate are becoming harder and harder to find.

At one point when Weblog Tools Collection was still including themes with sponsored links in their blog posts the sponsored themes were outnumbering the non-sponsored themes almost 3 to 1 on some days. In most cases upon looking at them you could almost see the edges of the cookie cutter. Along with this the majority of the themes were junk that should never have seen light of day.

For me there are two things of paramount importance with themes – usability and most important – readability. Unless you are a niche type site where hacker neon green on black is part of your appeal the theme author should make sure that at the very least the text is readable in all parts for all ages.

For example here on WinExtra the theme came with a gray text on the faint blue background which for young eyes or 800 x 640 screen resolution might not be that bad. Now I knew even for my old cranky tastes this needed to be changed but the point was driven home when one of my faithful readers emailed me saying that he like the new look but he would like it even better if he could read the posts without straining his eyes.

And it’s not just the post text but also the styling of the sidebars or the comments pages. It is also making sure that if you are asking money for your design; either through straight fees, sponsored links or donations, that your creation doesn’t look like a kindergartner let loose with a new box of crayons.

Yes there are a hellva lot of excellent theme designers out there and they do deserve to be paid for their work if they so wish. It is these designers in most cases though that are more than happy to either take donations or let you use their work for free. I have no problem with paying for a quality design; as I have in the past, whether it be through donations, fees or even honoring the sponsor links but I won’t if I have to fix it so it is readable or useable for my readers.

The end result is that people like to get paid for their work and if sponsored links are a method they want to use then fine with me as long as the design is professional, the links are reputable and you don’t get greedy – 1 link is fine – 2 is pushing it – 3 is over the line and you won’t get my attention.

Oh and one more thing – make sure your theme is useable and readable.

Share this post: