One of the largest sites offering WordPress themes is Elegant Themes. With nearly 100 themes created to date, Elegant Themes takes the approach that “less than more.” Rather than pack each WordPress theme with flashy graphics, superfluous features, and content on top of content, Elegant Themes keeps its designs clean and, well, “elegant.” The site sells to customers and developers using a yearly subscription model. GraphicDesign caught up with Elegant Themes founder and designer Nick Roach, who shared his approach to creating one of the largest theme warehouses on the planet.
GraphicDesign: Thanks for joining us. Can you give us your approach to graphic design?
Nick Roach: As far as the business goes, I feel it’s more about design as opposed to functionality. Trying to reduce the functionality down to the minimum and focusing on an elegant design are important. We had that in our name it was so important. We want to think about usability. While our main focus is simplicity, a lot of our competitors try to pack as much functionality in as possible and it’s cluttered. It’s all about simplicity and keeping things open.
GraphicDesign: How do customers respond to your “less is more” sentiment?
Nick Roach: I actually have talked with customers who send me e-mails with complaints asking why there’s so much empty space in the header. They say they can fit two banners in there and I have to tell them that you don’t want to smash as many things in as possible because it’ll add confusion.
GraphicDesign: Why do you think Elegant Themes’ products work so well and are so appealing?
Nick Roach: I got into the business early, so the timing was great. The business model I chose, the membership model – I was the first to do that. I was a lot different than my competition at the time. It’s also cheap when you consider how much you’re getting in terms of access to themes. I definitely focused on design early on by making our themes look better. The customer will buy what they think looks best.
GraphicDesign: We noticed you’re rolling out “responsive” themes. What makes themes responsive? Can you talk about that term and explain why it’s important?
Nick Roach: It means the design itself will change depending on the size of the screen. In other words, the size of the screen will dictate what the design looks like. The way we browse the internet is changing a lot. Smartphones and tablets are being introduced. Creating themes that change and adapt depending on the device is really important.
Users are starting to understand it, so we can use it as a marketing tool and really take the initiative. You’re going to have to cater to your mobile visitors, so you have to go responsive. We’re going really hard and all of our new themes will be responsive. I’ve wanted to roll out responsive themes ever since I got my iPhone. It takes a lot of work to do, but if we introduced them a year ago, no one would have known what we were talking about. We were waiting for our customers to request it.
GraphicDesign: In your opinion, what makes a theme graphically pleasing?
Nick Roach: First of all, color. I’ve been interested in color my whole life. When I took my first color theory design, it changed the way I think. I focus on using color palates. Second, subtlety – you’ll see designs where certain elements are too strong. Breaking it down to be subtle is important.
Finally, pixel perfect details – paying attention to a drop shadow that’s five pixels as opposed to four pixels – it’s a huge difference. Someone will use a two-pixel drop shadow on text and it looks goofy, whereas if they scaled it down to one pixel, it would look amazing.
GraphicDesign: What is Elegant Themes’ best selling or most popular theme so far? Why do you think that theme has stood out from the pack?
Nick Roach: The most popular one is called Chameleon. It’s not very specific – it can be used as so many different things. It’s one of the first themes we packaged with the CSS control package that allows you to change background images and fonts.
GraphicDesign: You talk about the importance of “modest elegance” on your website. What is modest elegance and why is it important?
Nick Roach: Modesty is a huge deal for me personally. It’s weird to think about that in design, but it’s similar to simplicity – not being too flashy. Flashy as a personal trait and flashy in design do not appeal to me.
GraphicDesign: Can you talk about recent trends in WordPress theme design and feel?
Nick Roach: The growth of mobile use is probably the biggest. Everything is being made to be responsive now. In general, WordPress started off as a blogging platform and now it’s more dynamic. We’re seeing more niche themes being created for certain platforms. Themes can really be made for anything now. Niche applications will be popularized going forward.
GraphicDesign: We heard a rumor that you create all of your themes.
Nick Roach: Correct. I design all of our themes personally and went to college for graphic design. I also have two developers that help me program them. I make the design in Photoshop and then send it off to our developers. I like to jump in with a blank canvas and just start playing around. For each theme I make, I probably go through 10 designs. I like to think about the concept for a while.
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