A long, long time ago I was looking for a flexible WordPress theme for my personal website and came across Frugal Theme. It didn’t really ‘click’ with me so I gave it a pass and instead modified one of the free themes to suit my needs.
Recently I was on a theme hunt again, and this time it’s for my niche websites. I was looking for a theme that has design and layout flexibility, including plenty of sidebars or widget areas. Most of the themes I found only allows widgets to be inserted in the left/right sidebars or footer. And it has to be easily styled with plenty of design options in the admin panel.
A theme that so far has the most built-in widget areas is Heatmap Pro v5 with 23 widget areas. It’s targeted for AdSense websites so it allows you to insert ads in the header, footer, within contents, sidebars, etc. If you are looking for a quick solution to get your websites up and running, and the design look is close to what you want, it worths to take a look at Heatmap Pro v5.
However, although it has more widget areas that I actually need, getting it to look the way I wanted would mean lots of stylesheet modification and possibly creating child theme. So another option is to go with a theme that supports creating new widget area easily like Thesis and Genesis frameworks.
While looking for alternatives to Thesis (one of the most popular WordPress theme among internet marketers) and Genesis frameworks just for the sake of comparison, I came across Headway Theme and Frugal Theme that now has become Catalyst Theme. And to my surprise, based on what I saw in the demo area, screenshots, and various documentations and tutorials on the internet, Catalyst Theme seemed to be the most user-friendly and promising. So I decided to give it a try this time.
So here are the breakdown of its features that I like the most. This assumes you install the Catalyst Theme as the base framework and Dynamik Child Theme that comes free with Catalyst.
Changing The Overall Site Layout
By default you get a fixed-width layout with Dynamik theme out of the box. I already have a specific design concept in mind which includes having top navigations and header stretched across the browser page like on this website. Surprise, surprise! It can be done just by selecting where the wrapper container starts and ends from a list of options as shown below:
Layout 1 has everything wrapped and therefore creating a fixed-width layout. By moving the wrapper to start after the hook ‘catalyst_hook_after_header’ in Layout 2, we let the top navigations and header to stretch across the page. The same thing goes for the footer. Easy!
What about sidebars? Catalyst Theme gives you few options too and you can even have different layout for different parts of your website. More on custom layouts later.
Then of course you can fine-tune most of the aspects of the layout like widths, colors, borders, etc through the admin panel.
Flexible Static Homepage Layout
Most WordPress websites nowadays have magazine-style homepage layout as opposed to blog-style listing chronological posts. It can’t be any easier to select the homepage layout than what Catalyst Theme offers. It has a special term for this, Static Homepage EZ-Widget Area.
If you look at the image above, ‘ez_home_1_3_3.php’ means you want the homepage to be split into 3 ‘rows’ with the top row having 1 widget area, the middle row having 3 widget area, and the bottom row having 3 widget area as well. Here is what it looks like on the front-end:
Splitting the layout into widget areas mean you can then drag and drop widgets into each of these areas from the standard WordPress Appearance > Widgets menu.
Change your mind about the homepage layout? Just select a different layout from the dropdown list and re-use the widgets to fill up your homepage. Genius!
Needs slider to display featured posts? Catalyst Theme is giving free Nivo slider to all their customers.
Creating Custom Layout For Different Part Of The Site
Now here comes the juicy stuff. When you first decide and select the number of sidebars and their placements, you are most likely working on the default layout which will be applied to the entire website unless you tell Catalyst to use a different layout.
How do you create a different layout? An advanced feature of Catalyst Theme allows you to create as many layouts as you want, which you can then use for individual post or page, category page, archive page, specific post tag, etc. The possibilities are endless.
In the screenshot above, I have created 3 custom layouts which then can be assigned even to individual post or page.
Creating New Widget Areas
In WordPress, creating a new widget area is achieved by attaching the widget area to one of the locations (or ‘hooks’) provided by WordPress. Think of it as if WordPress is asking you, where do you want me to display this widget area? Before the header? Inside the header? Before I display the post? After the post and before the comments? … etc.
Traditionally, you have to insert the PHP codes in the theme’s function.php file and this is what theme developers do. Catalyst Theme makes life easier for us by creating a user interface so we don’t have to mess up with any of the theme files.
Custom CSS Builder
If you are not very familiar with CSS, the Custom CSS Builder will help you a lot in styling your theme. You just need to select which element that you want to modify and select the styling (background, borders, margin, fonts, etc) from the dropdown lists. Even though I’m quite ok with writing the CSS directly most of the time, this is still very useful to get the elements’ IDs or class names.
Lastly, the SEO features. Catalyst Theme comes with the mandatory set of SEO optimization features both at general level and per-post/page level. If you are using SEO plugins like All-in-One SEO or Platinum SEO then you can choose to disable Catalyst Theme’s SEO and your settings from the plugin will be used instead. Personally I prefer to set the SEO in a plugin because that gives me freedom to change to a different theme in the future and not having to re-do all of the SEO titles, descriptions, keywords, etc.
So What’s The Conclusion?
Personally, I think Catalyst Theme is the most user-friendly among the rest of the WordPress theme frameworks. Is it the most flexible? maybe or maybe not but flexibility usually comes at the cost of more complicated way of achieving things. Catalyst Theme developers have done an excellent job at simplifying theme customization and the options given in the admin panel should be more than enough for most users.
If you are new to WordPress or to customizing themes, don’t be daunted by the admin panels. It looks scary at first but when you buy Catalyst Theme you will also get a PDF cheatsheet that will walk you through each and every options. You’ll get familiar with the admin panel in no time!