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Wordpress has become such a popular CMS that it's common to see "cookie cutter" websites that use the same theme. Fortunately, it's possible to dramatically alter the appearance of your Wordpress site through various customization methods.
The most common methods of customization include editing a Wordpress theme's code, creating a child theme, using a theme mask and paying a custom designer. In this article we'll go through these options in more detail, along with the pros and cons of each.
Directly Editing a Theme's Code
It's possible to edit the code of a theme to alter colors, change the layout or add new images. This option requires a strong knowledge of web programming.
If you're comfortable editing HTML, PHP and CSS, and are able to design your own images in Photoshop or another image editing program, then manual editing provides the greatest control over your site's design.
The main downside to manually editing code is that it takes a lot of time and effort. Unless you're a skilled programmer, editing an existing theme's code can be frustrating. Changing the code of a theme can also make it difficult to update the theme in the future.
Another problem is that many premium themes use a framework. The Genesis framework by StudioPress is a popular example. While there are many advantages to using a framework, you need to really understand the framework structure to create a good theme.
A child theme inherits the functions of a parent theme but introduces a number of modifications. Child themes don't affect the underlying code of the parent theme.
Creating a child theme is similar to editing a theme's code directly, but you don't need to worry about breaking the parent theme. You can also update the parent theme whenever a new version is released, which is important for security.
Creating a child theme still requires a strong understanding of web programming. If you've never programmed before, be prepared to spend a lot of time learning before you're able to create a child theme. Programming a child theme is much simpler than coding a theme from scratch though.
Masks are a relatively new option for customizing a premium Wordpress theme. As the name suggests, they add a "mask" layer on top of the existing theme. Masks usually contain interesting images, and change the appearance of the header, background and footer.
Adding a mask is one of the simplest way to customize a Wordpress site. Masks can be added with just a few clicks, and don't require any programming knowledge. If you want a new look without changing a theme's functions, a mask is one of the best options.
Masks don't change the underlying code of a premium theme. That means you can update the premium theme when a new version is released. Another advantage is that the content area of a theme isn't affected, making masks suitable for existing sites.
Compared to creating a child theme or editing a theme directly, masks provide far less flexibility. If you want to create a completely unique and custom design, masks probably aren't the best option.
Paying a Custom DesignerPaying a custom designer has a number of obvious downsides. If you have the budget, however, professional designers can create beautiful themes. A custom designer may be the only option if existing themes don't suit your site's subject or if you don't have the skills to design a theme yourself.
Professional custom designers have lots of experience designing Wordpress themes. Whether you need a few minor edits, or a completely overhauled premium theme, a custom designer should be able to complete the job using efficient code and best practices.
This is by far the most expensive method. Paying for a skilled designer can cost a lot of money, and future edits or changes also cost more. It can be time consuming trying to find a custom designer that's highly skilled, experienced in Wordpress and also charges a reasonable price.
Which Method Should You Choose?All four of these methods are valid, effective ways of customizing your Wordpress theme. Ultimately, the right method depends on your skill level, budget and what you want to achieve.
If you want control over every detail of a theme, creating a child theme is probably the best option. For convenience, price and speed, however, it's difficult to beat using a mask. Custom designers are often too expensive for small projects, but for large sites where branding is important a professional designer is the best option.