Theming Fundamentals in Textpattern

Applying a theme to Textpattern CMS is a labour of love. The install- and user-base of Textpattern is comparatively smaller than that of WordPress; subsequently, the approach to theming isn’t quite as polished. If you simply want to change the look-and-feel of the front-end operations of Textpattern, you have some options, each with their own pros and cons:

  • Modify the existing Textpattern template to your own design
  • Design and apply your own theme from scratch
  • Build a theme around a framework, such as Foundation or Bootstrap
  • Apply a  pre-made, free-to-use theme
  • Investigate premium pay-for themes

Let’s start at the top. Designing your own theme requires some knowledge and experience of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI), along with a keen awareness of the Textpattern tags you need to make it work properly. This is not something to be taken lightly by a newcomer to Textpattern, but with enough experience and understanding Textpattern can be made to look like anything you want, whether that’s an imitation of another site you love, a ported theme from elsewhere or something that is absolutely tuned to what you require as an administrator. Design and building takes time, especially factoring in the challenges that modern web design involves.

Building your theme around a framework will give you a head start and cut your development time, assuming you are familiar with what your framework of choice can do. My first framework was Bootstrap version 2 and I spent many hours understanding each of the components. I built Textpattern sites around it and although I was never entirely happy with the end results, ultimately because of my lack of knowledge in some areas of Bootrstap, I know that spending more time understanding and trialing options would take me closer to that nirvana I was chasing. I upgraded to Bootstrap 3 after it was out for a few days and redesigned some sites around the new software. Again, time was involved with learning the new features, removing the old things and making it work as I wanted.

Today, my go-to framework is Foundation version 5. I’ve spent hours researching and testing and I’ve only scratched the surface. I consider it a step-up from Bootstrap 3 and a challenge to rewire my brain in understanding it. I am building a new template for my Textpattern sites with Foundation 5 and learning as I go. This, inevitably, is adding many hours to the design process. It’s not wasted time, as such, but learning by doing is a time-consuming process that should be factored in if you’re taking the framework route.

You could get a free theme and simply apply it, too. This is an excellent option if you just want the plug-and-play approach without the fuss of design decisions and coding time. The Textpattern theme website offers a bunch of free templates for instant download, whether you’re looking to style the front- or back-end operations of Textpattern.

Be aware that Textpattern themes invariably use Textpattern-specific tags for their functions, and that these tags are sometimes dependent on certain versions of Textpattern. For example, a theme may use a tag introduced in Textpattern version 4.5; if you’re running Textpattern version 4.4 it just won’t work and may throw up errors or unexpected behaviours. Likewise, some tags have deprecated options that may eventually be removed, and if an old theme relies on these old tag options, newer versions of Textpattern won’t know what to do; cue the unexpected behaviour and potential errors. Check the accompanying documentation for each theme and you’re going to be OK. General rule of thumb: run the most-recent Textpattern, assuming your plugins and other add-ons are compatible, and you’ll be peachy.

If you want themes with commercial support, there are some vendors who offer this. It’s rare for Textpattern themes to appear on big commercial theming sites like Template Monster and ThemeForest, but it does happen occasionally. What’s more likely is competent users of Textpattern getting together and creating their own operation for providing pay-for themes with support from the authors. That said, the first site I think of when considering commercial themes is currently down, so I can’t link to it. Hopefully that will be resolved and I can show you in a later post.

In my next post I’ll show you how to apply an administrative theme to your Textpattern installation, and after that we’ll cover a front-end theme. The processes are currently different, but I do know there is development work ongoing to simplify and perhaps unify each approach.

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Author Spotlight

Pete Cooper

Pete Cooper

Pete Cooper has been using Textpattern since 2005. Textpattern is his preferred CMS weapon of choice. Its logical and flexible approach to content management makes Pete happy, as does its lightweight core and helpful user community. Pete's website - petecooper.org - runs on top of Textpattern and chronicles his day-to-day experiences from his home near the Atlantic in north Cornwall, United Kingdom.

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