You have four seconds – the exact amount of time you need to create a lasting first impression on your web visitors – to answer this next question. What would you possibly do to differentiate your online business from the myriad other businesses out there? Tick tock…three, two, one. Time’s up.
You probably came up with these among other answers:
- Have the most awesome of products
- Tell a great personal story why you do what is it that you do
- Build a formidable online presence
- Talk to someone over at Finally Famous, Inc, which is a totally fictitious company
Fiction aside, let’s back up to bullet number three on our list; building a formidable online presence. Easier said than done, building an online presence that lets you standout from the crowd involves a couple of factors that tie back to having a great website.
A great website you say? That’s right; your website is, among other things, the face of your online business – your one and only chance to make a great first impression on your prospects. In today’s post, we will reveal 20 tools you can use to customize your WordPress theme to suit your business needs, and lure in clients in trawls. Before the list of tools though, here are a few truths about WordPress theme customization you need to keep in mind as you make changes to your themes.
How to Customize WordPress Themes
If you’ve never customized a WordPress theme before, you might believe it is so complicated a process requiring the brains of a rocket scientist and the resilience of a neurosurgeon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Changing how your WordPress looks and functions is easier than ever before thanks to a wide range of premium WordPress themes that come with advanced theme options. And many themes, like Total, include page builders and customization options built-in so you can create a one of a kind website without using code.
Nevertheless, even with a plethora of options at your disposal, some features and styles are simply not built-in, meaning you have to add them manually. But trying to get anyone with little time or experience to write code manually does not elicit the best of feelings, so what exactly are your options as far as customizing WordPress themes goes?
When looking for the perfect WordPress theme, you can go with a premium theme (such as Total), a free theme or a theme framework depending on your business requirements as well as personal preferences. With a free theme, you don’t put your credit card down but the inadequacy of features and options will make you wish you had. Sure, you can always get plugins for any functionality under the sun, but we all know how that goes.
With premium WordPress themes, you get the features, the looks, the updates and awesome support for a price. Suffice to say, your premium theme of choice might not have all the features and options you need taking you back to square one. A commercial theme framework offers you flexibility, the best web standards, clean code, support etc, but if you don’t know what you’re doing or at least what a child theme is, you’re stuck and won’t achieve much in the area of theme customization or even development.
Surprising enough, using a child theme is the best way of customizing your WordPress theme. We covered child themes in the past here, so I won’t go into the details, but you should never customize a theme’s files directly to prevent losing all your changes every time you update the theme. Instead you should use a child theme. Child themes allow you to build the site of your dreams based on the parent theme without running the risk of losing your customization when you update.
Using your child theme’s stylesheet file (style.css), you can alter how your entire website looks with a few lines of code. With a special PHP file known as functions.php, you can add features or alter your site structurally. You can go a step further and create template files for your child theme, which gives you absolute control over the design and structure of your theme.
Once your child theme is in place, you can turn your theme whichever way you want, and guess what, you can edit the CSS to some extent right from within your WordPress admin dashboard. However, the changes you can make this way are limited, hence the need for additional tools.
Tools to Customize Your WordPress Theme
The tools we cover in this section range from code editors, FTP clients, code inspectors, image manipulators, and probably everything else that’s the preserve of web developers, web designers and tech-savvy website owners. If you’re the perfect beginner, you will find a few gems as well, but it’s in your best interest to have passing familiarity with HTML, CSS and PHP – the stuff WordPress is made of. With that said, here’s the list of tools you need to customize your WordPress theme fruitfully:
Chrome Developer Tools
You have your WordPress theme installed and ready to go, but how do you know exactly which element to customize? If you look at your theme from the front-end, you can’t tell which element is which. The back-end is no better, but thanks to Chrome Developer Tools, you can preview changes to your theme’s structure and CSS, so you can see how they look before coding them. You can visually inspect any element using a point and click approach that makes your work easy. In Google Chrome, you can open Developer Tools by right clicking on the your site and selecting “Inspect Element”. Here’s a video to get you started:
Customizing your WordPress theme involves (or will involve) writing lots of code. For this, you need a powerful text editor that let’s you stay on top of things. Notepad++ is your best bet since it is easy to use, looks great and comes with plenty of awesome features that will make writing code a whole lot fun.
Notepad++ works with Windows, but if you need a one-of-a-kind text editor for your Mac computer, Sublime Text is a great choice (it’s what we use here at WPExplorer when coding all of our themes). It comes with distraction free mode, split editing support and allows you to customize anything while switching between projects instantly.
Local Server (WAMP, XAMPP, MAMP, LAMP)
The best and easiest environment to customize (or develop) WordPress themes is a local server. It eliminates the process of logging in and uploading to a live server saving you time and effort. It also means you have complete control over your server to customize it depending on your varying needs. You don’t need to buy hosting space or register domains/create sub domains to customize or develop themes, which is great for your wallet. There are no downtimes or usage caps plus all the other things you hate with your current WordPress host.
To create your own local server, you need programs such as WAMP and XAMPP for Windows, MAMP for Mac OS X, or LAMP for Linux. I use WAMP and it has been awesome so far so good. Would you like to learn how to install WordPress locally with WAMP, MAMP or LAMP? Checkout our post series.
Wait, I’m not a graphic designer. I just want to customize my WordPress theme(s). Can you tell me why I need Adobe Photoshop? Here is a nice little quote for your pleasure:
[Photoshop] is the defacto standard software for manipulating images. I use it for editing logos, changing colors on background gradients, and tweaking [almost] any image element on a website. – Chris Cree, Web Savvy Marketing.
Now, do you see why you need Adobe Photoshop to customize your WordPress themes? There are so many other things you can do with Photoshop including creating mock ups, picking web colors, saving images for the web etc. Photoshop costs about $20 bucks every month, which is a bit pricey in my world but well worth it.
If you’re just starting out and on a tight budget, shelling out $20 bucks a month for Photoshop is something you probably don’t want to do. Enters GIMP and your day and $240 per year is saved. Albeit challenging to set up, GIMP is a worthy alternative to Adobe Photoshop.
When you start customizing themes, you will need code snippets for various components such as taxonomies, sidebars, custom post types, menus, shortcodes and toolbars just to mention a few. While you can choose to spend hours on end Googling the codes, GenerateWP offers you the easiest and quickest way of creating custom code for your project using the latest WordPress API’s and coding standards. Generate any code you want at the click of a button.
Changing minute details (e.g. fonts) on your theme can have a great effect on the design and user experience. But choosing the perfect font for your WordPress site can be challenging what with the thousands of fonts out there. Worry not though, with the WhatFont tool, you can find out the fonts used in any webpage easily. Just install the WhatFont browser extension, run it and hover on any block of text. Simple as 1, 2, 3.
The “Inspect Element” tool works great but is it as impressive as the CSSViewer? That’s a resounding no. While you can’t visually edit the CSS (like in “Inspect Element”), CSSViewer is a simple and intuitive CSS viewer that will make customizing WordPress themes a breeze. All you need to do is install the extension and hover on elements to see a range of CSS properties.
In most cases, when you acquire a WordPress theme, you receive just that – a blank theme canvas without any content. You can still customize the color and whatnot, but without dummy content, it’s challenging to see if something is amiss. But where from will I get me some cool dummy content? We have your back covered; you can download sample content from Theme Unit Test on the Codex or WordPress Sample Content on WPCandy.
A trending item at CodeCanyon.net at the time of writing, Visual Composer is an extremely user-friendly and responsive drag and drop page builder that comes with visual editors among other sweet features. In simpler terms, you can use Visual Composer to build any WordPress page imaginable. Sounds like the tool you want by your side when customizing your WordPress theme, right?
With a responsive design, over 45 content elements, templates, multi-language support and ease of use among other features, Visual Composer is exactly what you need to build the WordPress theme of your dreams. It has nearly 50,000 sales, an impressive buyer rating of 468/5.00 and costs $28 bucks only.
Theme Test Drive
Theme Test Drive is a well-rated plugin by Vladimir Prelovac, a reputable developer with more than 25 plugins under his belt. The plugin does nothing fancy – you just get to “…safely test drive any theme as an administrator , while visitors use the default [theme].”
That’s right, using Theme Test Drive, you can run two themes on your WordPress site at the same time. Of course, your readers will only see one while you customize the other. When logged in, you will only be able to see the theme you’re customizing, allowing you to make changes transparently without the users ever noticing you run a different theme for yourself.
Am I Responsive
As you customize your WordPress theme with new features and styles, you want to see how the customized theme looks and functions on different devices. If you don’t know where to start, Am I Responsive is your answer. Once your are on Am I Responsive website, just add your URL and click the GO! button and that’s that.
Other suitable alternatives include Responsive Design Checker, Responsive Design Testing by Matt Kersley and Mobile Responsive Design Testing by StudioPress. You don’t want custom elements to overlap or fall out of line when you change screen width, now do you?
WordPress Theme Customizer
This tool should have been first on this list but hey, who’s keeping count anyway. Fluff aside, WordPress Theme Customizer is an easy-to-use WordPress tool that allows you to customize any theme in a live preview. You can customize everything from the header to menus to colors to widgets and so much more depending on the options available in your theme. To use WordPress Theme Customizer, just navigate to Appearance >> Customize in your WordPress dashboard.
This is an all-in-one web design tool that helps you to customize your WordPress theme easily. Just point and click to edit margins, padding, colors, backgrounds, fonts and add visual effects such as shadows and hover among others. From CSSHero.org, this tool “…is the definitive WordPress plugin to easily customize every property of your themes with an easy and intuitive point and click interface.”
Whether you’re customizing your own or a client’s theme, you need a tool to take down notes and track your progress. You can choose to go old school and jot down notes on paper you’ll lose later on, or hop on the Evernote bandwagon and keep your notes organized and synced across your devices. The choice is all yours. The best part? Evernote is free!
During and after customizing your WordPress theme, you need to upload files to your web server. You can use the File Manager feature that comes with your hosting account, or go with FileZilla, the go-to FTP client for many a user. It’s free and compatible with Windows and Mac OS X among others.
This is a great browser extension for WordPress lovers with a thing for Firefox. FireFTP plays well with Firefox, so you can upload/download files right from within your favorite browser without ever downloading a standalone FTP client. On top of that, FireFTP is free, works as advertised and from the numbers, quite the popular tool. In fact, it’s the best web-based FTP tool!
If you customize themes for a living, you obviously have projects running head to head. If you fail to track your work, things will go haywire eventually, something you definitely don’t want. Basecamp costs between $25 and $150 a month, and is the best tool to “…assign tasks, check due dates, collaborate on projects, shares files and have discussions.” Basecamp offers a 60-day free trial, so don’t be scared to give it a test run – they won’t ask for your credit card.
If Basecamp is not to your taste, ActiveCollab is an impressive alternative. With a host of awesome features and starting at just $25 per month, ActiveCollab offers you all the tools you need to stay on top of any project, not just theme customization.
Extra Resources to Customize Your WordPress Theme
WordPress theme customization is a broad field with numerous tools and resources to help you along the way. Below is a list of resources for you to learn more about customizing WordPress themes:
- Theme Customization API – WordPress Codex
- HTML + CSS Tutorials – W3Schools
- HTML + CSS Tutorials – HTML Dog
- PHP Tutorials
- WordPress Theme Development – WordPress Codex
- How to Customize a WordPress Theme – The Theme Foundry
- How to Customize a WordPress Theme – PressCoders
- WordPress Theme Development Tools – ThemeShaper
- How to Create a WordPress Theme from HTML (Part 1) – WPExplorer
- How to Create a WordPress Theme from HTML (Part 2) – WPExplorer
- WordPress Tips: The Anatomy of A WordPress Theme
Over to You…
If you’re yet to start customizing WordPress themes, it’s easy especially now that you have more than 20 awesome tools to make your work easier and fun. If you’re not comfortable coding we recommend using a feature rich theme like Total to make customizations. If you do customize WordPress themes, which other tools do you use? If you liked this post, please share your thoughts with us as well, we always look forward to your feedback. Ad astra.