Our web development firm is just entering its second decade, most of which was spent building custom sites from scratch. For several years now, WordPress has been our platform of choice for our smaller business clients and creative clients. It’s not perfect, but it’s unmatched in its value for money and general useability.
Unlike most WordPress developers out there, we tend to prefer WordPress.com to the self-hosted option of WordPress.org, certainly when it comes to the small business client with requirements that are straightforward. The cozy environment that relieves a small business owner of the burden of worrying about software updates, plugin compatibility, backup and security makes the acceptance of certain limitations quite palatable. We like to find business solutions, not just technical ones, and WordPress.com fits this need again and again for many of our clients.
In the last couple of years, WordPress.com has continued to evolve to meet the needs of the small business owner, adding in new hosting packages and live technical support. These additions have made recommending WordPress.com that much easier for us. The number of responsive themes has grown, alongside more business-focused themes (though to my mind, these fall short for reasons I’ll mostly save for another post). All good.
But, there are some real challenges with the platform that we would dearly love to see addressed. The biggest of these are related and boil down to a question of branding or identity.
Fully Responsive or Bust
The WordPress theme showcase is my first stop on every client project. No self respecting business owner or web developer would choose anything but a fully responsive theme now, which rules out a great many of the older themes on offer. The only filter I use after targeting responsive layouts is ‘Features’; I don’t really care about Subjects or Colours; these are elements that we’ll build into the site’s design. Finding themes with the right features and good bones are what matter for us (which I understand is different from the typical personal blogger who is potentially doing it all themselves without technical help).
Identity is Everything
It’s a given for us that only themes with the options for custom headers and backgrounds are considered. Although ‘Site Logo’ is an option for some themes, it’s an option we’ve tended to steer away from. The footprint allowed for the logo is often just all wrong for our client’s identity, and there are often other constraints that prevent us from easily having a fully designed header graphic in place as well. You’d think that business clients would be the target audience for a ‘Site Logo’ feature, but it rarely works for us or our clients.
I can live without a ‘Site Logo’ as we’re almost always designing one or more custom header graphics to brand the site anyway. But this is where the first real frustration creeps in.
When we design custom responsive sites, which we also do for clients with more complex requirements, we design breaking points into the design. As part of these, we also build in different logos or header graphics for different screen sizes. WordPress responsive themes don’t offer this option.
WordPress.com responsive themes (and many other packages on the market) showcase a world of strikingly modern, simple design where a site has a single message, an extremely pared down identity, few words, and impressive photographs dominate. This trend in uber-clean and simple web design is just that, a trend. It’s going to get boring, and it’s not reflective of where many business owners are. It certainly makes theme selection tricky, as theme demos and examples of sites (blogs) using the themes are never kitted out in ways that show what a real-world business might do to highlight multiple business streams and interests and a more complex business identity with a tagline, etc.
The example below shows what the Twenty Thirteen theme homepage looks like straight out of the box (ie on the theme showcase). The example below that shows a real world example of a business site that we customized for a client on that theme. Below that is how the two examples roughly look on a mobile phone sized screen.
Twenty Thirteen Out of the Box
Twenty Thirteen Customized for a Real World Business
Twenty Thirteen Mobile View of Header
So, there is generally a lot more content on the real world example, and the header graphic (which conforms to the strict dimensions set by the theme documentation) is both truncated and hard to read. How fantastic it would be to have an easy option to upload a different, simpler header graphic for tiny mobile screens so that this site can look and perform as well for the mobile user as it does for the conventional large screen user. It wouldn’t be good enough to just strip out the header graphic for the smallest screens in favour of a text-only business name either – while we may be compelled to produce a simpler version of a client’s logo for mobile screens, the underlying identity or brand still needs to be present, which means that an alternate header graphic for mobile screens is essential.
As responsive themes are the only ones being produced now, it stands to reason that they need to properly address the issue of replacement graphics for vastly different screen sizes, and not just leave it to the most experienced developers to hand code solutions. When time and money are unlimited, nearly anything is possible, but “WordPress for Business” should mean just that – business solutions that keep pace with real world issues for real world businesses.
These aren’t the only issues that we contend with when we build new business sites on WordPress.com, but they certainly are some of the most pressing and certainly the most universal across our client projects. As a business essential, we’d dearly love to see an easy option for uploading and designating replacement header graphics for responsive themes. We’d also love to see theme pages showcasing more real world examples of theme customization for businesses, which would help to illustrate the extent to which themes lend themselves to customization and also make the theme developers better aware of the very real, less tidy needs of business users on WordPress.com.