You just don’t need a magazine theme

27 Comments

Magazine themes are quite alluring. Sliders, pictures, columns, unique blocks of different content on demos. But beyond the perfectly crafted demo marketed to entice you to purchase what you’ve convinced yourself you must have, you probably don’t need it at all.

I’m willing to bet almost no content driven website actually needs a “magazine” layout. In fact, for those that utilize them, it may hurt what’s most important to their bottom line — me, the reader. My page views and my time on their site.

By design, the traditional magazine theme I’m writing about is meant to show newcomers a great deal of content in a relatively small amount of space. Some of these themes are column-ized, some have big feature sliders, video widgets, or mega menus. Most have small fonts and line heights, headers tall enough only for a logo and a banner ad, and the general feeling that they’re trying to stuff everything possible onto the front page. You know the ones I’m talking about.

And they are wildly popular. Nearly anyone ready to start a content driven website wants one. Many that start on more traditional blog themes think they need them at one point or another. But they don’t.

Don’t try to be bigger than you are. Be yourself.

When I go to a website with this look, I quickly get lost. They’re not telling me what to do or where to go. They usually do a poor job of featuring either the most important or the latest content. Instead my eyes go all over the place trying to find a place to land before I start scrolling to see more of the same and inevitably leave to go somewhere else after only a short time. Not because their content wasn’t good. I never had a chance to find out. They just didn’t tell me what to click on.

But I haven’t even mentioned the worst part. All the negative aspects above make a big assumption: that your blog even has enough content to support all that stuff. More than likely, your post rate is no more than a couple a day (at best), and unless you’ve got a pretty good theme to prevent it, many of the same articles are in the slider, the latest posts feed, and the little tabbed box of posts by category. Now I’m really confused. But not only am I confused, I’m also unimpressed. I suddenly think you’re not really a serious operation or a veritable source on the subject that brought me there in the first place. And, I leave.

Instead of finding the most impressive magazine theme on the market, I hope that you will consider my advice. Look for something simple. Something that takes the distractions away and brings the calls to action at the forefront. Nice, crafted images that make sense for the post and entice my eyes to focus on the content. Easy to read, 14 pixel or larger fonts with plenty of whitespace between lines. A simple but noticeable “read more” button for long-form content. One column of posts on the home page, with maybe a subtle feature area if you really do create a lot of content. A sidebar where you scrutinize every widget for its necessity, and take it out if it doesn’t absolutely add value. Look at that — many of us just lost our sidebars entirely.

Don’t try to be bigger than you are. Be yourself. Write awesome stuff and don’t worry about trying to show me every bit of content you have so I have plenty to choose from. Choose for me. I’ll find what I need if I’m not looking for your latest posts. Tell me what to do first. Keep it simple. Make it impossible for me to not click the first thing I see, rather than impossible to focus on anything I see. And please, quit using magazine themes.

27 thoughts on “You just don’t need a magazine theme

  1. Excellent, Brian! I couldn’t agree more.

    If I look at my own site, as an example, and think about the huge number of features / layouts the theme has, I’m not using any of them–and I’m completely okay with that! I could build tons of different layouts, but it’s simply not needed, nor effective.

    • As a theme dev myself I look at what you’re saying a bit differently. You say you’re only using 1% of the theme functionality/layouts, and therefore 99% is unneeded.

      But if I made a theme with only 1% of the functionality of my normal themes…who’s to say that I’d choose the 1% of functionality which was the 1% you needed? When I make a theme with hundreds of options/layouts, I don’t expect any one buyer to use them all. But I do expect that each user that’s only using 1% of the theme will likely be using a different 1%, and without all those features it wouldn’t have been useful to so many different people.

      It’s not that we expect you to use all those features, we include them all so that the theme is versatile enough to fit the needs of the 1,000 different people that we want to buy it! And if we didn’t, then not enough people would buy it to make the low price worth the development time. Ironically, the themes being way more feature rich than 1 person needs is what makes it useful to 1,000 different people instead of one, which is what makes us able to sell themes that we spend months on so cheaply 🙂

  2. Fantastic to see someone apply a little original thinking. There is so much do what everyone else does as opposed to what makes sense.

    • Gosh it appears I was a little overcaffeinated. What I meant to say was: “There are so many people who just do what everyones does as opposed to what makes sense.” Just couldn’t leave myself sounding like a complete idiot! 🙂

    • I think the Daily Mail has plenty of room for improvement, but they are (in a way) doing some of what I say. Their call to actions are enormous pictures and enormous headlines. Despite the success mentioned in your linked article, I still think most of their homepage is total fluff, and if we were so lucky to see a click heatmap of their homepage, I bet all the attention gets directed to the big pictures and big headlines, and the rest of it may as well be whitespace.

      Also keep in mind there is a huge, huge, gray area between “small bloggers” and sites like the Daily Mail or say, the NYT. And most sites have much more clearly focused content, with fewer sections, than these monstrous news sites.

  3. There are features that magazine themes have that I covet; namely, the ability to keep topic areas separate from each other, in separate chronological flow, while introducing all topic areas on the home page. But the world of magazine themes seems to be all or nothing, and so I’m using my magazine-enabled theme in traditional blog chron flow.

  4. I learned this lesson the hard way. The most of us are no where near the size of a true news outlet and as such could never hope to fill all those widgets

  5. Thanks for saying this, and saying it so well. I hope theme designers will pay attention. The traditional bloggish look evolved for a reason: it does a good job of focusing on content, and it rewards regular visitors who don’t want to have to search around to find the latest content. The magazine look panders to short attention spans and infrequent or first-time visitors.

  6. Hmmmm. My site has around eight writers, a handful of categories (reviews, interviews, news, this week, Cappies, an actor’s advice) linked from the home page. But I think a more traditional blog style for the home page would not be received well by my non-technical audience. It is a good idea though to use a heatmap to see how people are using the home page.

  7. I think magazine style themes are an excellent choice of design for sites with absolutely massive amounts of content. Except … most of the sites which use these designs, do not have massive amounts of content.

    I had a website once which had large amounts of content, and a magazine type design made complete sense. However, once the content addition dropped off a little, the design became quite a big problem as the home page content quickly became stale.

    I think this was the point of the article, but thought I’d just reiterate 🙂

  8. Agreed, Brian.

    I genuinely believe that the magazine layout doesn’t always lend itself well just because people expect something from it. Clean, clear and structured layout for compelling content is going to generate page views and the same content is the one that gets people talking and conversations started.

    • I’ve always thought yours is a great example of a blog with both a good deal of content (you still blog every day, right?) and yet a very focused, simple layout. It’s a good combo.

  9. It’s so easy when you first start out, to get trapped in “feature need”. My first ever site was my personal blog. I started back on WP 2.1 (ish). Features were kind of harder to come by back then… everytime WP released something, or a new flashy theme feature became popular, I wanted it! It was like flashing GIFs and blinking text in the 90s…. I wanted everything flashy. I think a lot of bloggers get trapped in trying to add everything. Every feature, every option, do it all!

    My personal site is just that man, a personal blog. I ramble, and I share local music. I don’t NEED all that stuff. I’m working on (really darn slowly) an overhaul of my site. My old theme has calmed down some. I removed some features, I removed a lot of fluff. But it’s time to seriously just focus on the content. Just let people see what they came to my site for, and stop trying to give them EVERYTHING all at once!

    So yeah, cool article! It’s how I was feeling, makes me feel like my efforts are in the right direction!

  10. Great write up Brian, and very timely. We’re working with a client that is coming from 30 years of traditional newspaper work. When we were consulting and showing him some of the theme options for use as a starting point, we visited StudioPress and he immediately became fixated on their News theme.

    As we progressed through development, it was necessary to create A LOT of default content, categories, images, etc. in order to show them visually what their site will eventually look like.

    I think the realization that there will need to be a strong focus on publishing regular content has set in, and they’re excited to move forward. I think the content of this particular project will benefit greatly from a magazine type layout in the end, but what you’ve suggested above still rings true….

    Great article…:)

  11. Totally agree with this opinion.
    All what you said was what actually happen.
    At first, I was very impressed with ‘magazine’ layout, but when I tried to apply to my blog, hahha it’s look funny because lack of content, I can’t promise that all the content in the home page are fresh. that was embarrassing.
    The magazine layout only fit for the real magazine 🙂

  12. I’ve been building our own sites for a number of years now, we have a lot of content that just doesn’t work in a chronological single column blog layout.

    I redesigned our site last month – http://www.skiddmark.com (which is now the 4th redesign since ’08), prior to that we won the IMA design award in our class -so I guess we’ve been reasonably successful in making this format work for our audiences.

    The secret from my perspective is to use plenty of negative space, contrast and strong typography. Also, depending on your content, large colourful images are key to a restful reading experience and also building islands in the content where readers can naturally stop and use as a vantage point.

    We have a buddypress social network designed in a similar vein (www.skiddnet.com) and then our third content heavy site (www.skiddplayer.com) is a python/Django based environment housing 40,000 curated video posts (which is now overdue for a redesign)

    At the end of the day there’s no single answer and design is an interpretive process and as much to do with expression as usability, but I agree that most content heavy sites (Daily Mail, Huffington Post, even Mashable these days) are just far too crammed together and an annoying sensory overload.

  13. I was thinking of trying a magazine style theme on my new blog but now I think I stick with what I’ve got. I am however going to remove some of the extra information such as tags and categories on the front page and leave a bit of white space instead as I think it will be clearer

  14. I totally agree on many of these points considering Magazine style themes especially the fact that you require the content and post rate to keep the site fresh. 2 – 3 post a day bloggers should stick wiith a blog style theme as the comntent can be made to look fresher. My suggestion to keep in mind would be if you are not a multi-author digital magazine or digital news outlet go with a blog theme 🙂

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  16. Magazine style layouts only seem to be effective when you are updating every day at a minimum. By its nature people expect magazine style websites to be constantly changing. Its a lot of pressure if you’re going solo or only have a small team.

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