First things first, I love the Thesis Theme from Chris Pearson (Yes, that’s an affiliate link. Click on it, it’s good for you). I’m running my own customized version of it here on rumblepup. In fact, I’m running at least three others. I’m sure you’ve seen one of your favorite blogs start using it as well. I thought I was all cool and stuff when I was an “early adopter” of it, and I reveled in all the creative ways bloggers where customizing their own Thesis powered WordPress blogs (I just can’t bring myself to use the word ‘pimpin’ anymore). But try as I might, I’m starting to get a little “meh” about it.
The base design of Thesis, in and off itself, is really a great layout; 1000px width for plenty of space, a great markup, 3 columns to put all your stuff, a neat media block where you can put video or images, and a killer header menu. What’s not to love? In fact, the blogging community has loved it so much, it has earned widespread adoption.
And therein lies’ my little problem. Everybody is using the theme, with little or no changes to the base layout of it. In all honesty, there is NOTHING wrong with “run what you brung,” and the first step to any kind of online success is GETTING ONLINE. There are a plethora of “hurray rah rah” quotes you can stick in here, but at this stage in the internet game, even a business card site is a step in the right direction.
Success always breeds imitation. See something that works, try it yourself. And here is where Chris Pearson really made a theme that kicks ass. Out of the box, with a few clicks of the mouse, you can change your theme to THREE different kinds of layouts, and a whole bunch of customizations you crank out just by clicking off options. NICE.
In fact, it’s so nice, that one look at the theme on someone else’s blog, and bloggers just had to have it. And have it they did; you just have to hand it to Chris Pearson for being an awesome marketer and an awesome theme designer. The buzz and the affiliate program he put together, along with a little push from influential blogs like Brian Clark’s Copyblogger and Rae Hoffman aka Sugarrae, spread the theme like wildfire, and just impressed the shit outta me.
So…back to my problem. The theme is being adopted by blogger after blogger, and with all the tools at their disposal to “customize” their Thesis framework, most opt to choose to do the same thing, over and over again; A header image, three columns, a whole bunch of advertising, or they stick an image in the upper media box, and viola, another obvious Thesis theme. Does it work? Of course it does! It’s a good theme. Am I starting to get really tired of seeing only slight variations on the theme? Ooooooh fuck yes.
You know, maybe I’m just being a dick. I don’t mean to be, and for the most part, I’m trying to be fair. The truth of the matter is that we see this same theme layout over and over because most of the adopters are new or obviously not design orientated. This group of bloggers are trying to blog professionally, or at least making a courageous go at it. (some hurrah’s and huzzah’s here folks) And the inherit danger I am seeing is that there is something that might be lost.
Over and over again, online success comes down to a few principles, and one of the most important in my mind is your online brand. I don’t want you to think in any way that brand is only visual. It’s not. It’s a mixture of a group of things that create a corporate culture. But the visual aspect of any online presence is right up there in the top five things which make the wheels spin. A recognizable brand is important folks.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any original takes on Thesis. There are some customizations that are just out of this world. So good you can’t tell what theme is actually being used. But for the most part…not. I’ve started a brand new personal game as I travel the web. I call it the “and there it is” game. I average about 2 Thesis spot’s a day now.
I guess you can say that this problem is actually an indicator of a much greater problem, the general suckiness of free blog templates. I mean, have you seen some of these things? The good themes get used up so quickly by so many people that when critical mass hits, it’s hard to tell one blog from the other.
When I started on the internet, at a time I affectionately called “the cute ducky animated .gif days”, website design was in its “design” infancy. Only a few really knew how to do it well, and the rest where just learning. Those early designers who knew what they where doing, like razorfish, became millionaires, then sold their company and the rest of us grabbed up any html template we could. These sucky templates where all over the place, and the free ones where the worst of the bunch. Yellow characters in 6pt Times New Roman on blue backgrounds and a bunch of shiny, blinking .gifs all over the place, oh the humanity!
As the wordpress blogging platform evolved, so did themes. But as great designers started popping out themes…uhm, well, less than great designers started popping out themes…a ton of themes…lot’s and lots of themes. Frickin’ teal blue and brown background themes where all the elements are REALLY, REALLY BIG, and the text is really, really small. Most look like they where designed by someone who just got Photoshop and wanted to show off their mad skills at making beveled rounded corners. It was template hell all over again. And what separated really good themes from really bad themes was that the really good themes where ALL OVER THE PLACE, or they cost money. Thesis is both; a professional theme that costs money and is ALL OVER THE PLACE.
Thesis 1.3.2 was a fantastic roll out, but in all honesty, doesn’t let me do what I really want to do and doesn’t let the average blogger get past a certain point. The manual isn’t really that thorough, and a few bloggers had to stand up to simplify it. The frame work doesn’t really allow for granular changes once you have made a decision on the basic layout, because the entire layout is based on the inside Thesis functions. Whereas before, with 1.1, which was a little more traditional, I could grab one the theme files, do some changes, rename it as something else, or just change ‘cause I’m a badass that way, and bust out something I need. Or get some awesome help from Rick “the animal” Beckman. That’s not the case with the current Thesis, though Rick is actually going batshit crazy with all the work he’s doing in the forums and as support tech extrodinaire, or busting out Open Hook, new installation after new installation are now just different column layouts, but basically “and there it is.”
Look, I can’t really talk a lot of shit here, because I’m still trying to figure the whole hooks and ladders bit with Thesis as I write this, and I’m sure I’m going to get smacked around for it, but it seems to me that once you made some basic design choices via the custom options, it’s no more soup for you. I like different layouts for different sections of my blog. Why? ‘Cause reading a little column down the left third of the screen kinda sucks, but that’s just me. The answer for this and other design stuff I would like to do I’m sure are in the hooks someplace, but I see another problem on the horizon. Will I eventually “get it?” I sure I will. But I have about 10 years experience makin websites from scratch. Some bloggers have about 1 – 2 years of working with wordpress and themes, and not a lot of flight time with the deeper nuts and bolts of design, which might or might not help them get past a certain point. But now if the average blogger want’s to really make a unique impact with their blog, they have to think about brand. If they want to create a brand, then they have to delve deeper into design, or hire somebody who can design it for them. It’s the nature of running a website. You want it real special, you have to work at it. Don’t want to work at it? Then you get a website that looks the same as everybody else’s, and there goes you brand.
Chris has thrown down a gauntlet with Thesis that a lot of other professional theme and web designers haven’t. He laughs in the face of other “premium” themes and says “Oh yeah, you with your three color choices, my theme gives you ALL color choices, ha ha!” But I think that there are a couple of things that could really and truly make a difference here. I hear that Thesis 1.4, affectionately named COSMO, ’cause it was gonna be something else but Mr. Pearson the badass changed his mind because badasses do that shit, will address my “you’re being a dick” concerns. I’m really hoping for it. I have some tips, and I’ll be sharing them, but as usual, my posts are biblical in nature, so I’ll follow up with my “tips to the Thesis man” tommorow.