Author: Spektral of Talkpark.net
Throughout my years on the web I have personally gone through many stages. I've attempted to create countless websites and until recently, every single one fell through. I've also encountered many other webmasters. Some have failed while others have triumphed. There were those that would open a new website every week or open multiple websites at once, spend countless hours on them, and end up wasting their time while others went on to create communities like PlayFire and thus becoming successful business owners.
One irrefutable difference between the websites that failed and those that succeeded is their looks. Generally speaking, websites that fall through don't look good while those that succeed look pretty sweet. The name we give to the looks of a website is called its "theme." The way the site interacts with its users is dependent on the design of the site. This applies for forums as well. And in this guide, we will learn how the design of a forum affects its success.
Just like website design, forum design is similar in that its goal is provide a smooth experience for anyone browsing it. No matter what your forum's topic or goal is, its theme has to fit it. It would be inappropriate, for example, to have a "technology and space" theme going on at a sports forum. That just makes no sense.
The board's design is the first thing that defines what it is. It is important to make a good first impression. A forum's design is not important to maintain members it is important to attract new ones.
That process starts off with creating a theme that fits your forum's topic. What I generally see a lot of beginners do is just make anything that looks kind of cool the default theme on their board. But while there are countless designs that look cool, there are only a few that would make sense to put on your website and perhaps only one that would truly be a perfect fit.
The first step is, of course, creating the theme. Unfortunately, premade themes are not the way to go. Free themes generally look like trash and if they don't, they get used everywhere because they're free and they look good. We want to avoid free themes at all times. If you really want a good theme you're going to have to make it yourself or hire someone to do it for you. If you don't have that artistic talent and you can't hire a professional designer, you're not completely out of luck. There are plenty of cheap, paid themes out there. While these aren't as good as a completely custom design, they are used a lot less often and thus will look unique to the majority of people that find your site.
Finding a Designer
If you decide to hire somebody, there are a few important things to remember. First off, just because a designer claims to be good doesn't mean that he or she is. Ask them for their previous work and verify that it is, in fact, they who made it.
Other things you should be sure to find out is how long had they been designing professionally. One thing I cannot stress enough is that you have to figure out your budget. Don't go asking a designer of 10 years to make you an amazing theme with a low budget. There is nothing more annoying than a client who agrees to "pay any price" thinking that everything is within their limits, only to decline the offer made. Keep in mind that the price for a design is completely subjective. There are amazing designers out there who charge crazy cheap prices and there are those who have skills little more than mediocre and charge whopping amounts.
Do your research on "good" forum design. Use Google images, use DeviantArt, do anything to make sure you're not getting ripped off but at the same time keep in mind that you are unlikely to rip anyone off as well.
This all leads me back to the question of why you should know how long a designer has been designing professionally. Freelancers just starting out will generally be afraid to charge too much, knowing that they don't have any references. Use this to your advantage. People just starting out will have a much less clientele, if any at all, and thus will be much more flexible on pricing than someone who has hundreds of clients.
IF YOU PLAN ON HAVING A CUSTOM THEME DESIGNED AND CODED FOR YOU, COLLECT AT LEAST $500 BEFORE SCOUTING FOR A DESIGNER!
However, most of you are here not to get a long lecture about how to invest money into a forum. You want the fun, inexpensive way and I completely understand. Heck, it's the path I took and let me tell you it's is DEFINITELY worth it in the long run.
Designing Your Own Templates
If you're reading this having never used a program like Adobe Photoshop, you're in for hell. It takes at least a year of designing before you become decent. Most people become average designers in 2-3 years, so plan to invest a lot of time before you can finally churn out your own themes. If you're smart you will also take up programming. A programmer savvy with Photoshop is one of the most useful people on the web.
Most people here, however, are somewhat familiar with Photoshop, so here is how to CORRECTLY design a forum template.
First off, you WILL need a programmer if you aren't one yourself. My advice is to coerce a friend that can program into opening a website with you. If you can't do this or find someone really nice, you'll have to pay a programmer. In this case, make sure you never hire someone that charges by the hour. These are usually filthy scammers that just want to strip you of all your cash.
Anyways, moving on.
First thing is first. YOU define how the template will look not the other way around. The biggest mistake people make when designing a theme is building it around the way the default theme looks. DON'T. Create your own unique layout! Don't just take the default theme and change the images on it one by one.
Open Photoshop, make a 1000x1000px document, and create everything from scratch. This is the crucial step many people fail to realize. People try to design and code their themes at the same time. That makes no sense. First you finalize a design, have a concept ready to go, and THEN you begin the programming process.
Keep in mind that it will take hundreds of templates before you finally get good but I am willing to admit that any template created from scratch in Photoshop is better than a template made by someone who just replaces images on the default skin one by one with their own.
When designing it is very important to keep these three points in mind:
1. What are you designing?
2. Who are you designing for?
3. Why are you designing what you are?
Point #1: Figure out the purpose of your forum and build your design around that. Make the color scheme fit the subject at hand. For example, I might make a programming forum dark gray and light green, but I would make a religious forum lighter colors. I've seem some wacky stuff on the web. I've actually seen a sports forum try to pull off an outer-space theme. It looked so stupid and the activity of the forum exemplified that stupidity.
Point #2: Who is your target demographic? Who will be the people that see your site? For example, a design forum needs to have an absolutely superb skin. It can't just be "good" it has to be trend-setting. Same goes for design tutorial websites. I've seen countless hilarious Photoshop tutorial websites with mediocre designs. Why would I want to learn design from somebody that isn't capable of it? Typically, until you're a godly designer, don't start design websites. I guarantee they will never succeed without a jaw-dropping skin because your target demographic is looking for just that.
Point #3: Whenever you click a button on your mouse and drop a pixel onto the canvas, know why you are doing so. Is there any relevance into what you're creating at this moment? If you can't think of a good reason as to why something should be there beyond you just thinking it looks cool, don't do it. Modern design is trending towards minimalism. Get as much as you can across with the least amount of "noise" on your design.
My last and final advice is that about the creation of features. Only provide features which exemplify the content of the forum. Don't design features that serve no purpose. For example, a shoutbox on a general talk site is completely pointless because your biggest goal as an administrator is to keep people posting. A shoutbox removes the need for that.
Those are the basic of theme creation.
It will take you years to become a good artist but in the end it's worth it. You save thousands of dollars and with the new-found skills you actually gain the potential to make money.
And don't be afraid of your forum or website falling through. Countless times I've started something and then seen it die because of my inability to do something. Days, weeks, months or even years later I learn from my mistakes and thus can only create a better website than before.
Make sure you learn before you create another forum. If your last forum fell through because of your inability to devote enough time to it and that fact still remains four months later, your new forum won't likely get anywhere either.