Today is a great day. Chris Pearson gave me the chance to pick his brain.
As one of the most sought-after (and most elusive) WordPress theme designers out there, this was a major coup for Performancing! Enjoy. And if you’re looking for a great theme for your next blogging project, make sure to check out Chris Pearson’s latest theme Thesis.
1. In my early days as a blogger, I had some sites that completely flopped because I used a really bad WordPress theme (it looked good, but it had terrible code). What’s your biggest piece of advice for the average blogger when selecting a great theme?
Most people simply don’t know which criteria to look for when selecting a theme. Typically, the average blogger seeks out a new “design,” but in truth, she ought to be looking for functionality. I’ve seen countless themes that offer much in the way of eye candy, but at the same time, they have code that is so poorly optimized that SEO was obviously never even a consideration during development.
Once upon a time, the design purist in me thought this was okay, but let’s be honest here. Search is what drives the Internet, and if your site isn’t optimized for search, it’s going to get left in the digital dust. Nobody likes a half-assed job, and a theme that is heavy on design but light on SEO is, well… half-assed.
On top of all this, well-written code is probably one of the most underrated aspects of theme development. Organized, intelligent, and sensible code is not only easier to understand, but also easier to modify. If you’re the least bit interested in customizing your theme, you’ll find your job much, much, much easier if you can start with a solid code base.
Also, I don’t want anyone to read this and think that I’m not concerned with the design and “look” of a theme. Design is important, but I think that a lot of people don’t understand which elements of design truly matter. When it comes to blogs, two particular elements reign supreme—typography and whitespace (note that “fancy graphics” did not make the list). When people visit your site, their primary directive is to read your articles. If your template features poorly constructed typography and inadequate leading (the vertical whitespace between lines of text), your visitors will be far less likely to read through an entire post. The bottom line is that good design solves specific problems, and with blogs, readability and clarity are the two main obstacles separating you from your readers.
Finally – and this is often the deal-breaker for many folks – you should opt for a theme that is well-supported by both its designer and its community. There will come a time when you’ll need help making a modification or tweak, and without a responsible theme architect or robust community, you’ll be out of luck and very frustrated. Please don’t make the mistake of using a theme that has no backing—it will cost you in the long run, even if it’s a free theme.
2. With each new theme that you release, I know that you like to improve as a designer. With Thesis, what are a few things that you perfected in relation to previous themes?
For me, Thesis is an exercise in detail and perfectionism. Compared to my previous themes, Thesis features superior typography, a more effective 3-column layout with content on the left, tighter SEO, and em-based styling that results in a fully elastic layout. Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that Thesis is far more customizable than anything else I’ve produced. I am constantly baking new features into the theme based on feedback from users, and as a result, Thesis becomes more user-friendly and accommodating by the day. Want to use an auto-generated navigation menu? There’s an option for that. Want to change your background but don’t know how to do it? No worries—there’s a free, downloadable package for that. Having trouble implementing a plugin? More than likely, someone in the forums has already crossed that bridge.
Ultimately, Thesis is a user-centric theme, and more specifically, it’s centered on helping users improve their sites to help them become more successful bloggers and Webmasters.
3. I learned an important lesson from you a while back having to do with setting prices and being selective about the type of clients that you work with. What’s the best advice you can give for less established blog designers who feel like they are overworked and underpaid?
Pricing will always be a hot topic for freelancers, and after more than two years of doing client work, I’ve only finally started to get the hang of it myself. It’s all about how much you know, and more important, it’s all about how precisely and effectively you can leverage your skillset to build a killer site.
For instance, you can build a Website that will do just about anything from the following components:
- a server-side scripting language like PHP, Ruby, Python, etc.
- database software (mySQL)
- a graphics program such as Photoshop or GIMP
In addition, I don’t think a designer’s skillset is complete unless he has a firm grasp of other net-centric concepts like:
- Web standards
If you’re able to build a custom front end (design) and back end (code) solution that makes proficient, effective use of different Web technologies, then you’re worth a lot. If you want to increase your worth, then you need to learn more. Extend your skillset. Improve your proficiency. Find out how to build better, smarter, more flexible solutions.
The bottom line is that good answers are extremely valuable because they are so rare. The better your solutions are, the higher the price you’ll be able to command for them.
And hey, if you’re good and you know it, set your prices high! Nothing weeds out the serious folks from the wannabes like a high price tag 🙂
4. A lot of people ask me “What’s Pearson up to these days?” and normally I just say something like “Building his annual theme”. But I happen to know that you are doing some local work in Louisville. Can you explain your attraction to working with local clients?
This question is particularly interesting because I honestly didn’t care about locality when I began work on ForgeLouisville. Initially, I was attracted to the project because of the charisma of its founder, Matt Winn, who is a local venture capitalist. Matt had clearly-defined goals for both the site and his brainchild, and I really appreciated his vision and determination to make the site happen. He wanted it to be awesome, and I am insatiably attracted to the idea of building awesome sites.
I hate to burst any feel-good bubbles, but locality is of little importance to me. Passion is what I look for, and Matt was nothing if not passionate about this project.
5. A few years ago, you mentioned that with each new client you like to “up the ante” by doing projects that will build your professional profile. Do you think that all professionals should use this as an operating principle?
This one’s a no-brainer. If you’re not improving, what are you doing? Why do you get up in the morning? What do you want out of life? Success is a product of self-examination, and I’ve yet to meet a successful person who doesn’t want to improve themselves, regardless of their individual situation.
6. A lot of us got addicted to the free Chris Pearson themes. Can you explain your decision to go with a paid license model?
I decided to release a paid theme because I finally got real with myself. For two years, I was almost convinced that theme design was a corrupted market that had become a “freeconomy.” I figured that people would likely have extremely negative reactions to a premium theme simply because there are so many free alternatives available.
The truth, however, is that no matter what kind of product you provide, there is always a market for quality. Also, I firmly believe that a great product combined with great support will sell in spite of just about any circumstances, and this certainly holds true in the premium theme marketplace.
7. Do you think that PopCrunch needs a redesign?
Nah, it just needs better post titles 😀