Wednesday, June 03, 2009

First impressions: Thesis

Earlier this week I announced that I had launched, and I did so on Wordpress using Thesis as the template. I know a lot of you are thinking about launching or relaunching your blog, and may be considering Thesis, so I wanted to share my initial thoughts on the template.

Pros: Insane amount of customization is possible, and most of the major changes can be made with a few mouse clicks, instead of changing/editing code.

Cons: NOT for the beginner. If looking at template code scares you, you'll never get the full affect from using Thesis. Plus, it costs $87.

Bottom line: If you are comfortable tweaking your blog's code, or willing to learn, Thesis holds incredible potential for your blog as its template.

I've been wanting to relaunch The Viral Garden, and launch for a while now, and I knew I wanted to have both be on WordPress when I did. Initially, I was thinking that I would wait till later in the year when I had time and hire someone to design a super snazzy template for me. But when I heard about Thesis, I really became intrigued because it apparently simplified much of the coding process, and since I knew a bit from tinkering with the template here (and wanted to learn more), I decided to go with Thesis.

And let me say up front that I think this is where the first misconception about Thesis (at least for me) comes into play. I think Thesis is viewed by many as the template that makes the process of designing your blog MUCH easier. I think it would be more accurate to say that it flattens the TOP of the learning curve when it comes to tinkering with your blog's template. But if you are a complete newbie when it comes to changing/editing a blog template, Thesis will still seem like you are dealing with Egyptian hieroglyphics at first. I remember reading the forums about getting Thesis set up on my blog (can't remember the snag I was hitting), and I saw a reply from someone that had just bought Thesis and they said 'I bought Thesis thinking it was supposed to make everything easier. It shouldn't be this hard'. I completely knew what he meant.

But if you want to quickly and easily set up a very basic blog layout, Thesis is a gem. Look at this screenshot:

It might be a bit hard to see, but that's the Thesis Design dashboard, and with a few clicks, you can change not only the size of each of your blog's columns, but even change the NUMBER and ORDER of your columns! Want 2 columns with the content column on the right? No problem. What about three columns with the content column in the middle with a width of 500 pixels with the sidebars having a width of 250 pixels? Piece of cake. This is probably the biggest area that most people want to customize when it comes to their blog's layout, and Thesis gives you the ability to change and define this in literally seconds. This alone probably makes Thesis worth the $87.

Another area that many people want to change is adding widgets to their blog. We all want to stick our Twitter and Friendfeed and MyBlogLog, etc widgets on the sides, right? Thankfully, Thesis also makes this painfully easy.

Thesis has several 'pre-loaded' widgets available for you to choose from, such as Archives, Recent Comments, Tag Cloud, etc. It also gives you the ability to add your own by adding a Text widget, then putting in the HTML code you get from Twitter or MyBlogLog or whatever site you want to add the widget for. Just pop that code in the text widget box, click Done, click Save Changes and there you go! You can also choose which sidebar you want to put the widget on, and in which order you want to have the widgets. Again, this is painfully simple.

The other area of that I wanted to change was to add a header image, and this is where the trouble started. Unfortunately, this process was far more demanding than changing the layout and adding widgets. I went to the forums for some answers, and struggled to find a decent solution. And in reading the forums it becomes obvious that Thesis is geared toward the more advanced blogger. I guess that's assumed since you have to pay $87 to get the thing. But I think it can be a bit intimidating for the beginner. Here's an example of what I am talking about. I was scanning the archives for a problem I was having on getting Thesis set up, and found this solution from a member:

"Hey this is an easy problem to fix! All you have to do is edit your custom.css file, add in this code, save it and re-upload it, and you're good to go!"

Now this response makes several assumptions:

1 - That I know what my custom.css file is and where to find it
2 - That I know HOW to edit my custom.css file
3 - That I know how to add the code and re-upload it

By now, I know all of these steps, but at first I was totally clueless and had to do some serious studying. But if you are used to using Thesis, solutions like this will make total sense, but will confuse the hell outta you if you are new to tinkering with your blog's template, and Thesis. But on the whole, the forum has been very helpful to me, and all the members seem very nice and willing to help out. Even if some of them make the mistake of assuming that I'm not an idiot when it comes to some of this stuff ;)

BTW I finally figured out my header issue, this site has the answer I needed, just find out the EXACT URL for your header pic on your server, and put it in parantheses where it says YOUR_ABSOLUTE_PATH, and add the code to your custom.css file. Yeah, it sounds like French now, but if you get Thesis and start tinkering with it, you'll get it!

And this comes back to the ultimate question: Should you buy Thesis? It really depends on:

1 - How comfortable you are with editing and changing your blog's template and files associated with your blog's template, and

2 - If you are willing to learn how to do this tinkering, if you don't already know how.

I am more in the camp of I don't know that much about HOW to tinker, but I want to learn. For myself personally to improve the look and functionality of and this blog, but also professionally, so I can help blog consulting clients with their blog's design.

If you want a no-frills blog template that looks decent that you never want to mess with, you can probably get what you need from a free template and be completely happy. But if you like to customize your blog's design and keep the functionality up to date with what your readers want, Thesis is perfect for you. And I haven't even gotten into Thesis Hooks, which hold incredible customization potential by allowing you to add in functional elements at different locations on your blog. Here's an example of a gorgeous blog/site that's running on Thesis. That's definitely over my head, but it shows the potential that Thesis offers, and that's a big reason why I wanted to get the template and learn how to tap into its potential.

My advice is to get Thesis. Sure it costs $87 and you'll also have to pay the associated hosting fees, but in the end it's worth it IMO to be able to customize your blog to the level that Thesis allows. And you also get updates for free as each new version of Thesis comes out. I'll likely be updating this entry later on as I become more comfortable with Thesis, but I wanted to give you my initial impressions as someone that's only been using Thesis for a week or two.

If you're using Thesis on your blog, what do you think about it, and what would you tell someone that's considering getting it?


Phil Sheard said...

Thanks for the write-up. I'm a couple of steps behind you but working with Thesis for the first time myself to redirect my blog away from my personal domain.

It think it's the third level, you're right - not for beginners:

1 - Free, hosted service to understand the medium and build your confidence. At this point you probably don't actually want to be found.

2 - Host or customise your site, because after 1 you have a better idea of what you're trying to do

3 - Get advanced, with a WooTheme or something like Thesis, because you know what you want to do, and want to be able to do it efficiently but still The Right Way (Lots of SEO customisations of Thesis are totally on point, like removing spiders from unwanted pages, and nofollow tags where appropriate).

3a - if you're not a total control freak or have time / willing / experience to code you could easily hack a free wordpress theme to get similar results to Thesis.

Keep tweeting and blogging about your experience and see you in the Thesis forums :)


Anonymous said...

Wow - new site looks great Mack! If I ever switch from Typepad to Wordpress (or maybe WHEN), I know who I'm looking at first for tips.

Mack Collier said...

I agree, Phil. And I understand just enough of how the coding works to know that I can eventually figure it out. But one thing I do like better about Blogger is that it's so easy to make a change to the template and then preview to see what it looks like before saving.

David said...

Nice write up on the process, Mack. Having gone through this several times (with a different template platform, but same kind of thing) I can assure you that it does get easier.

I think the single most important thing is to make a point to save your files very often - make sure you keep in a safe place. It is so easy to make one tine mistake and everything suddenly go to heck.

Nice new site - about time the blog guy got away from Blogger! :-)

Robin Burks said...

I just got to work with Thesis for the first time for a client. And honestly, I'd rather design a Wordpress design/layout from scratch - it takes far less time to get it to do what I need it to! :P

I do agree with what Phil Sheard said above: you can easily hack a free theme to get the same results.

I work with Wordpress a lot these days - it seems to be not only the blogging platform of choice, but also the CMS of choice, as well.

Chris Brown said...


You helped me get started with my blog and were so encouraging.

I'm so glad that you posted about Thesis. I went to WordPressCamp in Columbus last month with the goal of figuring out which theme to use when I update my blog.

When I moved from blogspot to a hosted wordpress blog, I just picked a theme that matched the looks that I wanted, and I guess I didn't realize how crucial it was to have good code. I thought the theme was about the look and design, but not so much about the coding features.

Also when I moved the blog, everyone told me to just hire someone to do it, but being so stubborn, I had to learn how to do it myself with just asking for help when I couldn't get a color to match or change correctly, etc.

Now 18 months later, I'm glad I learned it, because I think I'm ready for Thesis, but I've got to carve out some time to work on it. Last time I waited for that week between Christmas and New Years, but don't want to wait that long again!

Best of luck to you as you move The Viral Garden.

Mack Collier said...

Thanks Chris, I am going to try to migrate The Viral Garden to Wordpress by myself as well. Hope I don't screw it up ;)

chel.pixie said...

If you screw up, it seems you have people to rescue you. But I don't think you're gonna. :)

Great write up on your experience though. Gives me some insight as I haven't worked with Thesis yet (been avoiding doing so until hearing feedback from more than one person). Helpful review.

Cindy said...

Great post!

I had the opportunity to build and customize a blog for a client recently using the Thesis framework. I am by all means a novice with coding but found using the Thesis OpenHook Plugin by Rick Beckman to be a big help.

I am eager to switch my own site now to Thesis. My client's site I built from scratch so migrating my current site to Thesis will be a bit more of an undertaking for me. Keep us posted on your progress.

Rebeca said...

Really its a great post. Can you tell me how to make different title for different page in Wordpress blog ? Thanks in advance.

Sire said...

I use Thesis on one of my blogs and wasn't all that impressed with it. I actually went out and bought another theme which was a lot easier to use and now run it on all my other blogs.