May 21, 2020

Blog Themes and Layout

When we reach blog themes and layout, that is where Blogger and WordPress really diverge. With WordPress, there are no limits to what you can do, both in terms of the thousands of templates themes through the WordPress community and the way you can program those themes to function in any way you want, not just in terms of the design layout but also with dynamic behaviors.

With Blogger, everything is much more limited, and for beginning users, that can actually be a good thing. You can teach students about the separation of content and design, so they can see how it's possible to change the look-and-feel of their blog by changing the theme, while all the content stays the same... and they are not going to get themselves lost as they experiment with the design options. There are a limited number of Blogger themes, along with a limited range of layout options. That means the Blogger blogs are more-or-less the same to navigate while also conveying a feeling of originality. So, at least for me, I'm very happy with the way my classes work out: most students choose Blogger blogs which they tinker with in their own ways, while some students also want to work with WordPress which means that the students using Blogger also get to learn about WordPress blogs too, seeing what their fellow students are doing with their WordPress blogs.

And now here's a quick overview of themes and layout in Blogger:


In Blogger, you access the theme option from the Blogger dashboard:

There have been three generations of Blogger themes: a first generation of themes (now deprecated, although you might still see them in existing blogs still online from back in the day), a second generation of themes which emphasize the sidebars, and then the newest generation of themes which are mobile-friendly and use dynamic resizing, hiding the sidebar by default. Since I am a big fan of using the blog sidebar (more on that later), I always choose from that second generation of themes, but most of my students prefer the newer generation of themes.
Sidebar Themes (older): Simple, Picture Window, Awesome, Watermark, Ethereal, Travel
Mobile Themes (newer): Contempo, Soho, Emporio, Notable, Essential

I should also say something about the Dynamic Views theme, which is a really fascinating experiment that belongs to the older generation of themes but which does not emphasize the sidebar. Instead, Dynamic Views offers many different views which the user can choose from. It's a really cool idea, and it's a theme that is popular with my students. But here is an important word of warning: there is a bug with the Comments in the Dynamic Views theme. If someone leaves a comment, and then later changes their mind and deletes the comment, it will cause the comment display for that post to jam up. The other comments do not disappear from the administrative Dashboard view of Comments, but they will not display at the blog, and it will also be impossible for people to leave new comments on that post (it does not affect other posts at the blog). Pretty much every semester I have to write a few students to alert them that this has happened to one of their Dynamic View posts so that they can repost the contents of the jammed-up post in order to make it possible for people to leave comments and/or for them to edit the post to give a link to another post where people can leave their comments. Some students decide to switch to another theme as a result, and that's fine too; it really depends on how attached they are to using the Dynamic View theme for their blog.

Customizing the Theme

After you click on a theme to select it, you can also customize it:

Customization means things like choosing the background image, color scheme, along with setting default widths and other layout features. The "advanced" panel is basically a way to adjust CSS settings for fonts, colors, etc.

If you are using one of the themes with sidebars, the Layout panel here is where you choose whether to have one or two sidebars, the width of the bars, and how they are positioned; I'll say more about that later.


In addition to customizing the theme, you can also customize the layout of the actual post pages using the Layout menu; you'll find that just above Themes in the Dashboard left-hand menu. The Layout is how you customize things like the top navigation bar, the header area, and the post area. If you are using a blog with a sidebar, this is where you add actual content to the sidebar. (I'll say more about the sidebar content later.)

You can drag-and-drop the boxes of content to rearrange the layout, and then you can click on the pencil to edit any box.

With regard to managing your identity, I already mentioned how you can edit the Post area in order to un-display your author byline on posts.

You will see similar types of configuration options available depending on which content area you are editing.

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In my classes, some students really get excited about configuring their blogs, while others just choose a theme and don't make any changes to it during the semester, and that's fine. My goal is to give students the opportunity to learn about blogs if they want, but exploring blog design features is not something that's required. Over time, though, as they visit other students' blogs and see the different design features at those blogs, that often inspires them to try tinkering with their own blogs, and I've got a series of Tech Tips that they can do for extra credit if they want (along with Tech Tips on many other topics as well).

Next up, as promised...... Blog Sidebars (one of my personal favorite things about blogging!)