WordPress Theme Design

I’ve been using WordPress blogging software for about four years now. I started messing around with themes pretty early on in the process. My approach has not really changed too much over that time span. I start by going on-line and just browsing through themes that are available to down-load and use. There are tons of them available and usually I’ll hit more than one that looks pretty good. I download it, and then I start messing with it, making changes so that it perfectly fits what I want. I am not really inclined to learn all about CSS, PHP or exactly how WordPress works. I just change, save and refresh and usually I eventually get where I want to go. But now, those days are over. Tessa Blakely Silver’s new book “WordPress Theme Design” has made it possible for me to quickly learn the basics, without getting bogged down in minutiae and tons of documentation. This has been a real life-saver for someone who just wants to knock out a nice WordPress theme. I do have to admit though, I’ve learned a number of things about web design that relate to quite a bit more than just WordPress.

This book is not a definitive guide to anything. It will not tell the reader all there is to know about WordPress, CSS or the myriad of other issues that it touches upon. It hits upon most everything that is absolutely necessary to know and there were quite a few bonus areas covered that I didn’t expect. At 211 pages, it is a pretty quick read. The conversational style also makes it go by pretty quickly. The only thing that will slow a reader down, is if they take the time to work alongside the author and follow the examples, and build a theme themselves as they read the book.

In fact reading this book could be summed up this way; it felt like Silver had dropped by and offered to sit with me at my laptop, talking me through how to build a theme for WordPress. The book is logically laid out, but the text just flows, and related topics just come and go as the specific task at hand is addressed. I really enjoyed that and it made the book so much more useful to me than a dry recounting of API’s and CSS parameters. Silver steps way past a step by step how-to and adds much of her experience and opinion. That’s the kind of thing that makes this book worth having, as opposed to just going through on-line documentation.

A couple great examples of the little extras are a nice discussion of font usage and a list of some of the more common fonts and how they might best be employed. The chapter on packaging and distributing a theme has a short, but informative section on licensing and gives a few choices. In both instances Silver is not afraid to voice her preferences, but also informs the reader of other options, as well as pointing to good resources for more information.

Since the book is not exhaustive, there are a lot of these pointers to other sources of information. I found these to be of value as well. I didn’t feel like the book ever got bogged down in minutiae, but if I wanted to dig deeper on something, there was almost always a url pointing to just where I could do so.

The first five chapters give a quick guide to designing and coding a WordPress theme. There are a lot of extras there on design methods, debugging, and implementation tools that will really come in handy for anyone doing web development with xhtml and css. Silver advocates using tools that are available freely, for the most part, and the primary tool for the bulk of the book is the Firefox web browser and a few developer plugins. She does use Photoshop as her image editor, but I had no trouble following along using the Gimp myself. By the time I had completed those chapters I felt like I knew quite a bit more about WordPress and the technologies that it relies upon. I’m not an expert by any stretch, but I’m not just grasping around in the dark any more either.

Chapters 6 through 8 deal with a lot of what one might call ‘flashy’ options for a blog. Silver covers things like using Ajax, embedding flash, dynamic menus and other interactive options. Once again I learned a bit about these in general, and the basics that I needed to know to get them to work with WordPress without too much hassle. There is a short WordPress reference in chapter 6 that covers the most important functions for a theme designer. Chapter 9 closes out the book with a nice review and some good advice that would work for any design whether it is in WordPress or not. I was happy to see the author constantly reminding the reader to consider standards, accessibility and performance. Too many sites seem to have completely forgotten any of those three in pursuit of some certain ‘look’.

I’d say that this book is going to do well with anyone who is comfortable getting in and messing around with mark-up. It will most likely be a bit basic for anyone who is a web design expert. Though if they are coming to WordPress for the first time, this may be just enough to jump-start the learning curve for the WordPress side of things. Someone who doesn’t know what FTP or CSS is, will have a difficult time with this material, though it might be a decent place to branch out from in order to learn. I doubt anyone with a lot of experience creating WordPress themes will find much of anything here that is going to make it worth their time.

As I mentioned, the tone is extremely conversational and casual. The text is well laid out and easy to read. Illustrations are there to aid in understanding, as many of the issues are visual in nature. All the code and files that go along with the text are available for download from the book’s web page. The index is a bit light but acceptable. The table of contents breaks things down to a rather deep level and helps make up for the lack of information in the index. If the index were as good as the table of contents it would be excellent.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to better create and alter WordPress themes. This may be the quickest path to learning what needs to be known to create them. Mastering all that is possible with the platform will take much more time and many more resources, this is not everything to everyone, but a great resource for getting the job done.

This is the first book I’ve ever read put out by Packt, a relatively young publishing company. I found this to bode well for them and was interested to read in the back of the book that they donate part of the proceeds of any book to the open source project that is covered by any book they sell. I thought this was an interesting idea and a good way for readers to support the projects they are interested in. The book is also available from Packt as a PDF, with some access controls, though they are not as onerous as some I have seen for e-books.

Title: WordPress Theme Design
Author: Tessa Blakeley Silver
Publisher: Packt Publishing Ltd.
Pages: 211
ISBN: 1847193099
Rating: 9/10
Tagline: A complete guide to creating professional WordPress themes.

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