One of the trickiest things about DIYing a website for your business is creating something that looks as gorgeous as you imagined it would. From buttons that seem to be stuck at blue when your brand demands green to stubborn fonts that just will not be the right size, it can feel completely overwhelming to customize a WordPress theme and make the website of your dreams. You can end up thinking you need to scrap the entire project and start over, or that you need to hire an expert to get the results you want.
I’m here to tell you that isn’t true. You really can build the beautiful website in your mind on your own. It’s just going to take the right tools.
Get Your Mind in Order First
Working on a website design can get frustrating, and even more so when you’re trying to customize a WordPress theme that’s particularly stubborn. Sometimes settings won’t be where you expect them to be and things won’t move where you want them to. It’s important to remember that this isn’t because you’re bad at technology or not smart enough. Technology is just hard. Even techie people get frustrated and stuck. To create the website you want, you’re going to need grit. You’re going to need the right mindset.
“Growth mindset” is a term that I’m very glad I learned in my educator days. Professor of Psychology Carol Dweck defines a growth mindset as the belief that your talents can be developed, rather than that they are innate gifts. People who possess a growth mindset don’t worry as much about looking smart and focus more on learning. You’re going to be learning a lot about WordPress in this process, and maybe a little about CSS. If it’s difficult at first, that’s probably because it’s brand new to you. Stick with it. You’ll get it.
Choose (or Switch to) the Right Theme
Your theme is going to be either your best friend or worst enemy here. Working to customize a WordPress theme that has built-in tools or compatibility with the right plugins for your design is going to save you from having to learn to write CSS because you can’t change the footer from 4 to 3 columns or a section of the site from purple to grey.
If you’re willing to completely put your design together from scratch, Astra, GeneratePress, and the Beaver Builder Theme are great options. All of them are super customizeable and extremely lightweight. However, you’ll be doing everything yourself (or with the help of some basic templates) including page layout, typography choices, and even small things like designing the menu. If you feel confident in your design skills, these themes won’t hold you back.
If you’re looking for a theme that has more of the design in place from the start, you have a wide world of options available to you. Genesis themes or any theme by Automattic (the creators of WordPress) will serve you well, but there are tons of other themes out there that could work out perfectly for you.
Ideally, you’ll want a theme that advertises itself as being flexible or customizeable. Without that, you’ll want to choose a theme with a design you’re already in love with. If you find yourself thinking it would be perfect if only the home page had another section or the fonts were different, you’re better off going in search of a better match than trying to make that one work. Lastly, before you buy, check out the theme’s documentation to make sure it’s written in a way that’s easy for you to follow.
Here’s what to avoid:
- Themes from a developer who hasn’t created any other themes
- Themes from a developer whose support forum is a ghost town
- Themes for sale on ThemeForest.com
That last one is going to be controversial, so let me explain. ThemeForest has a number of fantastic themes by excellent developers. They also have many terrible, bloated themes by developers who don’t support their work and stop providing updates months after you’ve purchased them. They’re also often bundled with Visual Composer, which is a page builder plugin that adds even more overhead and slowness to your website. I’ve helped dozens of clients who’ve been burned by these themes and had their site break, forcing them to do a full (read: costly) redesign less than a year after setting up their site. Don’t be one of them.
What if you’ve already chosen a theme and it’s not doing what you want it to? First, consider switching. With one of the “from scratch” themes above, it will likely take you 2-4 hours to design your new site to match the old one. How long have you already spent trying to get your theme to cooperate? How much longer do you want to keep investing in it? If you’re set on sticking with it, or it includes features you really need, check the sections below for some tools that can help.
I’ve also created a free guide to help you out with customizing a particularly tricky theme. Download it below!
Meet the WordPress Customizer
The WordPress Customizer is key to making your website look the way you want it to. You’ll find Customize in the admin toolbar across the top of your screen when you’re on the front end of your site, or under Appearance > Customize from the Dashboard.
Depending on your theme, you’ll finds all sorts of tools here. From your header menu and site title to your main site colors and from font choices to building your home page content through widgets, this is the first place to look when you’re trying to customize a WordPress theme. If you don’t see an option you need in the Customizer, you can sometimes find it in the Dashboard under Appearance > Theme Options. If you still don’t see the settings you need, you’re going to need either some extra tools or some coding to get the job done. Check out the two sections below for help with those.
Pick a Page Builder
Page builders functionally turn your website into SquareSpace, giving you an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface to customize a WordPress theme. Instead of trying to learn HTML and CSS to create a 3-column layout, you just drag and drop boxes onto the page in the arrangement you want. A page builder will make designing your website significantly faster and easier.
My page builder of choice is Beaver Builder. It’s compatible with most themes, easy to learn, well-supported, and won’t slow down your website. It even has a new addition, Beaver Themer, that lets you customize your header, footer, blog posts, WooCommerce products, and more.
Important note: While Beaver Builder works with pretty much everything, Beaver Themer isn’t compatible with all themes yet. It’s compatible with the Beaver Builder Theme, any Genesis theme, Astra, and a few others. Check the list here.
Two other popular page builders are Elementor and Divi. I don’t have personal experience with them, but many of my colleagues love them.
Learn a Little CSS
Even with a page builder, sometimes you’ll need to resort to good old fashioned coding to get what you want out of your website. I know that sounds super intimidating and tedious, but I promise that CSS isn’t as bad as it seems. Take a look at this:
I’ll bet you know exactly what that does. It makes buttons on the website blue. Bam! You just read CSS. It’s basically English with extra punctuation. Even better, WordPress has a built-in CSS editor right in the Customizer.
It won’t always be that easy to customize a WordPress theme, but it won’t get too much more difficult. In fact, I have a whole blog post and video covering the basics of CSS for WordPress right here.
Now you’ve got what you need to really build the WordPress website you want. If you get stuck, I’ve added some extra tips in a free downloadable checklist below. Or let me know what’s tripping you up in the comments!
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