All too often, I visit authors’ websites only to find one of WordPress’s default templates staring me in the face. A website that is not adequately styled sends several negative messages:
- It suggests the creator is not technically savvy, which suggests he or she might also lack savvy in other areas.
- It suggests the creator has not put much effort into the website, so why should the visitor care about its contents?
- It suggests the website is not yet complete‚ giving the reader the impression he or she should come back later.
Making a template-based website look polished and unique, be it a destination created via WordPress, Squarespace, Wix, or Weebly, is akin to having a suit nicely tailored. With minimal cost and time, you can turn what might be an unflattering ensemble into a presentation that makes you look like a million bucks.
1. Choose a strong foundation.
No matter how much tailoring goes into an outfit, it will look bad if its fabric is cheap or its colors fundamentally clash with your skin tones. The same goes for your chosen website template. If the template does not work well with the type of content you would like to feature, or if it clashes with your personal style, no amount of added tinkering will make it look good.
Invest a significant amount of time into researching and choosing a template that suits your needs. If you are using WordPress, I recommend considering Themeforest as a resource (it is my go-to place to find great themes). You can also use WordPress’s theme directory.
Search for WordPress themes and sort by “best sellers.” Themes that sell well are far more likely to be adaptable and useful than those which have yet to amass a following. Also look for themes that are responsive (which means they will adapt well to different web browser sizes and mobile devices) and themes that have a wide variety of shortcodes (which give you the ability to easily insert cool features and formatting frameworks without a lot of effort).
Once you have found several themes you like, preview them on as many different devices as possible: iPhones, Android phones, Safari browsers, Chrome browsers, Firefox browsers, iPads and other tablets, etc. You may find that some themes have formatting issues in certain browsers, while others are more adaptable. It is better to catch those issues before you settle on a theme and invest time and money in making it look good.
2. Build your shopping list.
Nearly all themes enable you to customize features such as:
- Banner images
- Favicons (the small icons that appear in a browser’s tab)
- Homepage configuration
- A special tagline
You can typically find what features can be customized by poking around your website theme’s settings and special features (such as gallery, banner, and slideshow features).
Once you have chosen a theme and know what features it offers, I recommend creating a list of every asset you need to collect and its required format.
You may, for example, need:
- A 100 x 300 pixel banner image
- A 16 x 16 pixel favicon image
- Three hexadecimal colors for your site’s primary, secondary, and tertiary colors
- Three to five 1000 x 5000 pixel banner images for your homepage
Knowing exactly what images you need, and in what dimensions, will help you create or purchase images that look good once you put them in place.
3. Collect your website’s key elements.
Once you have a list of required elements, you can gather them in an organized fashion and come up with a collection of customizations that work well together. You can start by creating a logo for your site, then incorporating that logo and its coloring into your banner image, favicon, and color scheme.
I often help people create website banners and logos (through my company, ArtCorgi) that feature portraits of them. Below is a snapshot of a website that uses a portrait created by one of our artists, Crespella, in its header image.
You will notice that Stephen, the owner of the website pictured, used his header image to dictate his site’s color scheme. His website is very simple and new, but comes across as professional and intentionally built.
You do not need a special portrait or illustration commissioned to create a polished site. Canva.com is an excellent resource when it comes to building nice graphic elements for your website that can be sized to fit any proportion necessary. Even professional photography can be purchased through the tool at very reasonable prices (e.g., around one dollar).
4. Put those images in place.
Once you have all the images and information you need to customize your theme, upload and adjust them as you see fit. A bit of tinkering is usually needed, as themes are full of surprises. An image or color scheme that you thought would look good can turn out to be hideous.
Keep your theme’s core assets (any custom banner and header images, information about your color scheme) in a centralized place so you can easily adjust elements later on.
You may also consider using the assets you collected to develop a unique look for your social media pages. Website headers can often be nicely adapted into Facebook, Google+, and Twitter cover images, and your website color scheme can be translated over to your Twitter profile’s color scheme. Having social media feeds that match well with your website helps you look all the more polished, professional, and serious about your work (and hence, worth heeding).
5. Fill your website with substantive content.
A beautiful outfit can do little to save the reputation of a person with lackluster personality and intellect. The same goes for a website. No matter how beautifully you have customized your theme, your website will reflect poorly on you if it has not been updated for a long time, lacks high-quality content, or has no content at all.
Choosing and customizing a beautiful website template is only the first step. While a beautifully built website can suggest to visitors that you are serious about your work and have substantive, valuable stories to share, the only way you can truly prove your worth is by sharing them.