Premium WordPress Themes and Other Concerns

Matt Mullenweg announced two weeks ago that WordPress would go forward with a Themes Marketplace where designers could sell their work and split the profits 50/50 with Automattic. But earlier this year, some designers had already begun selling “premium themes” themselves — WP templates with bonus features, plugins and otherwise above-average designs. Solostream was among the first to offer this kind of paid-theme product.

A month after Mimbo first launched in August, I noticed a few other developers starting to put out similar news and magazine themes. One that made a big splash was Brian Gardner’s Revolution News which sells for anywhere between $99.95 to $249.95. It’s notable that Brian charged for it, but also because it’s top quality work that stands above what you find in the usual theme galleries.

More folks are beginning to test the waters. Last week I got an email from an outspoken South African designer named Adii who mentioned Mimbo had been a big influence on his latest concept called Premium News. He also asked that I give it some feedback. To be fair, any kind of advertising on this site is forbidden on principle, but Adii was kind enough to provide a copy of the theme (also valued at $99.95 – $249.95).

premium

Premium News

Advantages:
It’s obvious Adii has put a lot of thought into keeping the homepage compact and well-organized. He’s made use of javascript libraries like jQuery to handle some of the tabbing and accordian behaviors. This might be pure novelty on some sites, but here I think it’s actually useful in keeping “major” information available while obscuring “minor” information when it’s appropriate. Aside from the javascript, the homepage also succeeds because it remains fairly clean despite the amount of content.

As far as interior pages go, I like that the archives allow browsing by category, date and tag-cloud. One thing I’d like to see on the single-post pages, and something I’ll add later to Mimbo, is a more context-specific sidebar. Example: if you’re reading an article in the “Main Category 1″ section, the sidebar also displays modules like “More articles from this category” and other content. CNN does a good job of this — if you visit the “Health” section you get an expanded overview of that section which resembles its own mini-homepage.

I think the real advantages to Premium News are the dashboard options. Here you can edit preferences for color scheme, video and featured content, all without having to open any templates. I imagine this is a big plus for site owners who are not developers themselves.

Drawbacks:
I’d like to see this theme validate properly and find a solution to the various inline CSS styles and inline javascript. I’d comment more on some of the bloating in the CSS/HTML, but it looks like another company handled the slicing. Keeping in mind, these details are invisible to the end-user, but remain a best-practices issue for any professional site.

Appearance-wise, I’d also like to see some more creativity in terms of color, polish and typography, especially for a paid theme. News sites are inherently pretty sober, so I understand keeping it simple, but there are other news and portal-style layouts that convey warmth and personality:

All things considered, I think Premium News will do well, especially since Adii provides support and future upgrades. As a fan of bastardizing WordPress myself, I think he’s gone a long way to pushing it into CMS territory.

The right design for the right client

One curiosity about premium news and magazine themes: who is the ideal client?

For individual bloggers, a newsy layout won’t often be appropriate. But for reputable news or media sources who are serious about their identity, selecting a $250 pre-fab design is also unlikely. The features they request often greatly surpass what WordPress is capable of. The last few media sites I’ve worked on have ranged from $10,000 – $40,000 and required extended information-design and wireframe phases which took weeks. Obviously there are clients with significantly smaller budgets, but if so, is a news-portal layout with video the appropriate thing for them, especially if they know their site will be identical to hundreds of others?

I do understand some of this is a difference in perspective — if I went freelance tomorrow, I can’t promise the quantity-selling of themes isn’t something I’d consider, but I admit to being conflicted by the idea. Instead of going into it more here, I’ll save it for another post…