Is using themes just copying?
Now, if we can't do anything else than copy, that also means we can't invent something really new. That's seems bad, but there is no need to change our profession because of that. Every creative artist started their career copying but they just didn't tell you. The good news is even though we can't create something completely new, we can combine things in a new way. Wow, that sounds promising. And this is what I claim (and what others probably claimed before): The intellectual power of design is to combine copied things in a new, innovative way.
This is exactly what we do when we use a theme for a website. When we go to a themestore e.g. themeforest.net to check out the themes, we first watch out for a structure that fits the needs of our next project. We have to ignore all the fancy images and colors the presenter used to show his structure. We have to ignore it because the content- its appearance and its architecture- makes up 80 percent of the website's impression and the content is what we change anyway.
So I will show you an example of what I mean. That's the theme I chose and how it is presented at themeforest:
And this is how it looks without it's content:
Quit simple. What we did is, we reduced the theme to it's structure. We almost made a wireframe out of it, a beautiful wireframe because we didn't remove the colors and shadings yet.
From this point, we start to tailor the copy to the client's needs. Let's put in the logo:
Not a big difference yet. But what about the colors of the theme? They don't fit to our logo and the mood we want to create. Let's change that:
Wow, that is a big difference. But it still looks quite poor. Of course, if 80% of the website's impression comes from its content, we have to put it in to get the real impression. Let's do that:
The content as well influences the layout. In the original skin the right column contains a list of the latest news. But for this project we don't need news or a blog. Hence we can get rid of the 4th column and all the lists in the footer (latest news/blog archive). As well we remove the search as a very small website doesn't need one.
Besides that we make some other small changes. We narrow the menu bar, add a slogan, and spice up the logo with a script typeface in the background to give the design a more individual touch.
Let's compare to the original.
That looks unique and different from the original theme, and it is. There are million of other ways we could have altered this theme by combining it with other content, colors, shadings, effects, backgrounds and logos. The only thing we copied from the theme is the structure. And to be honest, there are plenty of websites on the internet that use the exact same structure. Even if we have never seen this theme before, we could have designed the exact same structure on our own by coincidence, and it would have been a copy!
If we make use of an existing structure, we don't need to build up a photoshop file with thousands of layers, reinvent a html structure, and integrate it into the Content Management System we use. We can focus on what is really important: the content, the information architecture and the user experience. In the end, by using themes, we are freed to have more time to make our users happier.
About the author: Daniel is the designer of the theme "Armada" and initiated t3temple, a skin system for TYPO3together with his brother and his company /gebrüderheitz. At the moment he is working for Web Essentials as a graphic design advisor.