Need some basic WordPress info, but ""WordPress" and "basic" don't seem to go together.
April 16, 2010 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Need some basic WordPress info, but ""WordPress" and "basic" don't seem to go together. I am a designer who is decidedly not a programmer, and I'm wondering if WordPress is learnable for me.

I checked all the related questions here, of course, but before I did that, I did hours of research and attempts at learning the basics. I tried their "5-minute install" and only got through a fraction of it (and only understood a fraction of it) in several hours over two days. Creating a database? Tried to. Not sure I succeeded or where to go from there. Then I installed their app on GoDaddy and tried to set up a site there. I get that you can import themes wholesale and then change the basics (text, etc) but if you want to make any design changes - ANY - it looks like you have to be able to hand code PHP. So I'm really at a loss here as to how to grasp the basics. Is there a WYSIWYG editor I can use? How do I set up sites on my server? I have and know Dreamweaver and I have years of design experience, but, as I said, I am no programmer. Am I a lost cause? Also, I've heard some people say that WP is really just for blogs, but I've found much evidence to the contrary. Any help would be much appreciated from a designer trying to learn a new skill.
posted by FlyByDay to Technology (12 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, if you Google there are some step-by-step guides to creating a Wordpress theme out of an HTML design. It is a pain for the non-programmer, but if you stick it out, things may slowly begin to make sense.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 4:43 PM on April 16, 2010

I'll be honest, if you don't understand HTML, then you won't be able to make Wordpress themes any time soon. Stick to pre-designed templates which use widgets - these can be re-arranged right inside Wordpress using drag-and-drop.
posted by Mwongozi at 4:50 PM on April 16, 2010

Ok. The basic idea is the templates themselves are in PHP, but you pretty much stick to css edits (style.css in wp-land, unless the designer is a maniac, more common in paid themes than free) to change the actual look. If you want a really bare bones (ie craigslist) theme with all the possible page options, so you can just add css, sandbox is a good theme.

Unless you are trying to do advanced stuff, or picking a theme that is not suited to your purpose, you shouldn't have to edit the php. So start off small, learn some CSS, and you should be golden.

Once you're comfortable with CSS, you will probably find a dive into PHP (at least for something like wordpress template tags) a lot less stressful. Wordpress is well documented, but there are a lot of good resources out there that you can mostly copy/paste from to do more advanced functions (see perishable press).

Re: databases. Some hosts make this much easier than others. Godaddy is in the "other" camp. However, this link from godaddy about setting up a mysql db might be helpful. Really, all you have to do is paste the 3 appropriate bits of info and pick a name for your blog to install. Seems hard when you are all "wtf is database", but if you trust the instructions you will be golden.

I would reccomend you set yourself up with firefox and firebug, as well as web developer toolbar (these are firefox add ons if you are unfamiliar), vs a WYSIWYG. Those tend to create a lot of "bad" code that can create bugs down the line ... debugging is more of an art than a science, and really is harder than doing things by the rules the first time. You can use firebug to "inspect elements" and this will tell you what css rule you should be targeting to change certain sections on a page.

Note that I'm not saying CSS is easy as pie, or that being a wordpress pro should take you a weekend; just that if your end goal is to make yourself a nice portfolio, you can totally get there with some patience.
posted by shownomercy at 4:55 PM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Why don't you start with a theme, like Sandbox, that is designed to be a canvas for CSS theming? Once you've hit the limit on what you can reasonably accomplish by altering the CSS on a flexible theme, then you'll probably be much better prepared for mucking around in the php template files, but even there, you'll largely be avoiding the PHP and focusing on changing the HTML.

I get the sense though that you really don't have the skill set for dealing directly with even HTML & CSS. I don't know what your goal in learning to create themes for Wordpress is, but if it is to be able to move beyond creating sites that are designed and implemented in Dreamweaver and then uploaded to a server and actually deliver sites that people can largely maintain themselves through a browser, then getting your arms around HTML/CSS will be an important skill whether you end up building on Wordpress, or some other content management system.
posted by Good Brain at 5:02 PM on April 16, 2010

I knew some basic HTML when I decided to design some wordpress designs. This tutorial was a huge, huge help in getting me started. It takes you through what all the PHP files are and what they do. It also goes into the CSS and style sheet and what those mean. With some practice it was pretty easy to get a basic theme going and then I just started playing around with the CSS and started to get a hang of it. It might seem like a lot of steps at first but if you take the time to follow and read every step it is definitely do able.
posted by lilkeith07 at 5:15 PM on April 16, 2010

Response by poster: I don't know what your goal in learning to create themes for Wordpress is..>>

It's really having a template (or theme)-based alternative to designing from scratch with my limited CSS skills (another thing I've had a really hard time grasping)
posted by FlyByDay at 5:32 PM on April 16, 2010

As others said, you usually shouldn't have to edit the PHP. Changing the styles.css file for the theme should do the trick in most cases. I like starting with Thematic as a base theme, but you need to have a solid understanding of CSS to work with this and most themes.

I strongly recommend putting as much time as it takes into getting comfortable with CSS. It will open many doors for you, both with this and other content management systems. Learning HTML/CSS can be frustrating, but it's really worth slogging through. When you get to the other side you'll feel very powerful!

Firebug is an invaluable tool for understanding how sites are put together and testing your own work.

Good luck!
posted by bethist at 5:50 PM on April 16, 2010

I'd strongly recommend that (if you're on a Mac) you install MAMP; if you're on Windows, the equivalent is apparently WAMP, logically enough. I don't have any experience with WAMP though.

This lets you run Wordpress in a self-contained sandbox on your own computer, rather than on a server "out there", so that your changes are live as soon as you save to disk, rather than needing to upload. And the site is only visible to you. With MAMP, at least, getting the Wordpress up and running is dead-easy.

Designing is going to be a bigger briar patch. You really need to learn HTML and CSS. As far as I know, there are no wysiwyg HTML editors that can handle Wordpress tags, and that would be extremely tricky to do (since the editor would need to know how the tag would be rendered in advance). PHP not so much, unless you want to customize any of the functions, and even if you do, there are a lot of pre-built snippets out there you can borrow.
posted by adamrice at 6:05 PM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wordpress Theme design is actually a really great 101-PHP lesson. That's how I got my start. Start with this: So You Wanna Design a Wordpress Theme? It's a little out of date, but it was a tremendous help.
posted by GilloD at 8:18 PM on April 16, 2010

Wordpress can be used for more than just blogs. I deployed it recently for an organization to manage their 30+ page site, and add a blog to it, however for that size CMS project, knowing PHP is a reqirement in order to match wordpress to the behavior of the customer's site, plus we added a few plugins and customized their display.

I'm a developer and I have to throw in another plug for using and testing with WAMP. It is a very valuable tool. Plus, if you happen to screw up the software, you can uninstall and/or delete the wamp directory, then reinstall fresh. It's great software! I have not tried MAMP, but from what @adamrice said, it's probably the same or incredibly similar.

The above comments are great suggestions for starting out. As you get into designing and building more custom and advanced templates, a great base to work from is the starkers template. It contains a lot of CSS hooks and ultra basic site building blocks, but is a completely blank slate and good foundation for custom designs.
posted by rwheindl at 9:29 PM on April 16, 2010

Any proper web designer will cringe at what I'm about to say, but... I was in the exact situation you were and I managed to scrape together a customized Wordpress site. Customized, not custom: I worked from a template, which I modified (drastically) to suit my purposes. It's not 100% perfect, but it works, it's secure, and it looks how I wanted it to look. If you're crazy enough and determined enough (or, as in my case, underemployed with too much free time on your hands), you can do it. Here's what I did.

1) Took a basic web design class at a local community college. You don't have to understand everything (I sure didn't!), but you should be comfortable with HTML and CSS, and you need to get to a point where you're not scared of getting in there and playing with the code.

2) Read every single piece of relevant information my host provided about setting up Wordpress. What I didn't understand, I researched.

3) Spent a lot of time looking around at Wordpress themes. (There are so many good free ones out there.) I concentrated more on looking for a site that had the structure and functionality I wanted rather than getting hung up on the superficial appearance of the theme, knowing I would modify that myself later.

4) Installed my theme on my site and worked on it live. (Very amateurish, and I'm pretty sure no self-respecting web designer would ever do that, but I figured since that no one knew my domain yet, no one would be able to laugh at me adjusting my line spacing, etc. in real time.) Looked at the codes of a lot of other themes, figured out what I liked and how the web designers achieved that effect, and tried it out myself. Gleaned what I could from tutorials. Spent huge quantities of time of time on trial and error. I messed up a lot, but I was very careful about keeping copies at every stage so I could always go back. Obviously not a terribly efficient way to work, and I'm sure any proper web designer would either weep or fall down laughing at the thought, but eventually I got what I wanted. It was kind of fun, too, and I did end up learning a lot.

Basically, if you have the time, the will to learn, and the sheer bloody-minded obsessiveness, it's doable.
posted by TayBridge at 12:58 AM on April 17, 2010

The best way to approach the PHP in Wordpress themes is to consider them as tags. You don't need to know how PHP works, you just need to know what the tag does. Definitions and explanations of all the tags are on the Wordpress site.

The functionality of Wordpress is contained in PHP code inside those themes. Unless you want to make Wordpress do something it presently is not capable of doing, you do not need to muck about with the PHP.

You do need to know HTML and CSS. That's how you will change the appearance of your site. For example, inside every Wordpress them that generates the text that is output. For a typical blog, that's blog posts, with headines, dates and time, etc. You can change the appearance of the text that code outputs by altering the CSS that targets it. (Be aware that PHP code in Wordpress usually generates HTML code. It's that code you want to target with your CSS.)

Many hosting sites have automated scripts that automated a Wordpress installation. You need to have created a database prior to that. Some hosting sites make that easier than others., but it actually is not a complicated piece of work. The specifics of how it is done will vary from host to host, so if your host doesn't provide a dead simple explanantion, think about getting a better host.

If you're serious about designing and building a Wordpress site, learn HTML and CSS first, and then read your way through the documentation on the Wordpress site.

On the other hand, you might want to take a look at the offerings at, which is their hosting facility. You cannot install your own software, but you can get a Wordpress site up and running in a few minutes on their servers. No need to worry about creating or configuring databases. The tradeoff is that you are essentially limited to the themes they make available. There are many of those, however. If you know CSS, and are willing to pay a rather small fee, you can tweak your site's appearance.

Don't underestimate what you can do with CSS.
posted by justcorbly at 7:33 AM on April 17, 2010

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