scientific and technical website design projects news

WordPress templates

Customisable templates for WordPress have been available from third parties for some years now, these allow anyone (with the time) to create truely unique websites that are (with a bit of design flare) attractive and engaging. This facility is now available to everyone using WordPress – it shipped free with the latest WordPress template ‘twentytwentytwo’!

This development was immediately of interest to us, as we had a client looking to build a low-cost site that never-the less included a lot of quite complex, but customisable, layout. Armed with the new templating system we set off to see if it could be leveraged to deliver this. Our objective was to build a home page similar to in the visual below:

Here the home page template would have been called on to change most items in the main banner – namely a floated png of the vehicle, the ‘Test drive …’ message and the background graphic. With a conventional site, this degree of customisation is problematic using just the WordPress block editor (which has a tendency to fall over if the layout gets a bit tricky). To get around this we would have added a plugin to help the client through the process of editing the components for the home page in the WordPress administration section. Clearly if we can avoid having to customise one of our back-end plugins then we could save money on the build, and get a website that might be ‘more compliant’ to what WordPress is trying to achieve with its CMS.

Unfortunately, we ran into a lot of problems, the most critical being that we could not switch to a custom home page in place of the standard blog-roll, so we ended up with posts on the home page, and no way to replace this with our customer facing message …

This is perhaps only to be expected – the templating facility is still labelled as ‘in beta’ (February 2022). It does, however, demonstrate a lot of potential for the future, and we will doubtless re-visit this topic soon.

A brief history of customisable templates

A CMS driven website typically has a pretty rigid skeleton, within which the client (this might be you) can change the content, and has some limited control over how this content is layed out. Until comparatively recently, control over layout meant floating images left or right, and adding pre-defined blocks of ‘featured text’ (block quotes and headers pretty much sums it up). The new WordPress block editor allows the client to create some pretty complex content layouts if they have the patience. The header and the footer, however, are still usually hard coded. Occasionally you will get a widget area in these sections that you can make some changes to – but unless you are happy to write custom HTML/CSS you are stuck with the layout your designer created for you in these sections.

A customisable template allows you to take control of all aspects of your site layout!

Many users want the freedom to change all aspects of their layout, so it is no surprise that customisable templates are not a new concept. Early versions of WordPress allowed you to hand edit the template in the administration section, but this turned out to be a really bad idea. You needed to be able to write and understand HTML and CSS to get anything that looked half decent, but easy access to the code editing facility offered a great opportunity for hackers to do whatever they liked with your precious site (and they did). As a consequence, for a long while templates were hidden away from the admin panel; and left to the designer.

Modern templating systems avoid many of the pitfalls of giving, potentially malicious, users access to code presented to visitors. They are strongly focussed on layout elements, rather than offering a complete virus factory, but they do still come with some warnings attached:

A custom template capacity adds load to your hosting environment, and you need to be aware of this and ensure that your site is properly resourced. In many ways custom templates are the antithesis of our design philosophy over the last decade, where we have worked to build untra-light websites that can run quickly and efficiently. To combat this some of the better templating facilites do offer some optimisation facilities – and if you are going to use them, you should look out for these options in their control panel!

While most of our design at CookandKaye is for laboratory based personel in HE environments, where phones are not heavily used, typical visitor data for other sites shows that most of your visitors will visit your website on their mobile phone. To account for this your site should be flexible, it needs to accommodate your visitors irrespective of the type of device they are using. The templating and editing systems should come together to help you there – but you must remember to check how the site looks on a phone screen (assuming you are designing on a larger device!).

Some of our clients have already started the journey of designing and building their own, fully customised, websites. Many, however, do not have the time or inclination to take on what is a tricky design project that needs to balance a lot of requirements if it is to result in a usable interface fo their intended public!

Even if our clients do not want to take on the role of web-designer, the custom template facility will greatly lower the bar for new site developers. The need for an understanding of HTML, CSS and Javascript in a web designer is coming to an end…