Business Website Design – One Size Does Not Fit All

Over the weekend I decided to start a new blog. I signed up for my first marathon a few weeks ago, and after reading other runners’ blogs, it seemed like a good way to both document training and keep some perspective on all the things associated with committing to a marathon.

So I had an idea, but I needed a theme for my blog. I have tons of WordPress theme reviews and guides bookmarked and more come out all the time, so I sat down on Sunday and started hunting.

Reviewing My Theme Choices

After looking at a few hundred themes, I found about 20 that fit my new blog pretty well. The things I look for in a theme for a blog (which is fairly specialized as far as themes go) are:

  • Minimalist design – no big distracting images, lots of colors or fancy typography. The focus is on the blog posts.
  • Simple two-column layout. I like being able to show categories and other housekeeping links on the same page with my posts.
  • Responsive design. This is the BIG one – I’ll be blogging from a phone more often than not and it’s absolutely essential that I can easily read and use the blog in a mobile device (or tablet, which is what I’m writing this post on now).
  • No obvious problems like too little white space or broken layouts or ugly typography.
  • Tagline/description displayed, not hidden, because I had a catchy tagline.
  • I don’t need 20 widget areas or a complex options panel for a simple blog, it’s overkill.
  • Full blog posts displayed on the home page of the blog, not theme-delimited excerpts with no images.

So I loaded up the 20 themes I’d found and started going through them one by one. The one I loved is called Chunk and it’s from the makers of WordPress. Nice clean theme, simple bold typography – it fit all my criteria, until I opened it on my phone. Not responsive. Out the door.

On to the next ones… as it turned out, the 3-4 I liked best weren’t responsive, so those were unusable. The largest subset didn’t look that great once I tried them with my content. Two others had microscopic (serif!) fonts for headlines, too hard to read. One was a pretty close candidate but in the responsive version, it put my sidebar widgets above my content – dumb. There was another that worked quite well, but in the responsive version, the developer didn’t put any space between the menu items so they were sitting right on top of one another.

Now all of these issues, I could fix if I wanted to. I’m a WordPress developer, and it wouldn’t be hard.

But think about that: if you’re a business owner looking for a free or commercial theme for your company’s website, and you found 20 themes that sort of worked except for one problem or another, my guess is that you are not a developer and could not easily fix it. You might choose to live with it, which in turn makes your customers live with it.

If it’s this hard for someone with a small personal blog to find a pre-built theme that fits both the style and personality of my site, without obvious errors or bad design, how much harder is it going to be for a business owner to find that perfect theme to suit their company’s branding and focus?

Finding the Right Theme for Your Business – or Not

Avoid Cookie Cutter DesignHere is a harsh truth: you’re not going to find a perfect theme among the tens of thousands of free and commercial WordPress themes in the marketplace.

The only way to get exactly what you want is to have a theme custom-crafted by a creative and competent designer and developer, who listens to you personally, makes an effort to understand what makes your business tick, and utilizes your branding as the core of a unique business website design concept.

Please don’t do your business a disservice by using a ‘pretty good’ or ‘okay’ theme (that thousands of other businesses are also using) to represent it. Don’t make your customers have to learn about you or use a site that’s badly designed or has too many bells and whistles or looks horrible in a phone. When you do that, it looks like you don’t care.

Treat your website like the business investment it is – spend a little bit of money up front (most likely much less than you used to give the phone company every year for advertising privileges) and get the perfect theme: the one that is all about your company. When it comes to design, one size definitely does not fit all.

“My Business is Brand New – What if I Can’t Afford to Go Custom?”

Do the next best thing – get a customized theme, but start with a high-quality, well-built theme with a very general and pleasing design. Add your logo and other branding elements, and focus on the quality of your content. Simple theme customization is a service I provide for clients just starting out, but I try to help them understand that in a year or so, when their business is getting well-established, moving to a completely custom design is pretty important.

My New Blog

So what did I wind up with, theme-wise? At first I retreated to the default WordPress theme, Twenty Twelve. It’s nothing special, but it’s clean and easy to read, and it works fine in phones. But then I found Live Wire, which is not bad, looks okay in a phone, and is what I’m using right now. But honestly, it’s not ideal. I don’t love it.

I’ll probably wind up making a customized responsive version of Chunk for myself in the next few weeks. And that will be the perfect theme for me.