Review of Magento 1.4 Themes Design by Richard Carter

Magento 1.4 Cookbook Magento is one of the most popular open source ecommerce platforms available and probably the most functional open source system for selling online. As well as managing customer accounts, shopping baskets and online payment interfaces Magento is also a full CMS (Content Management System) where you can create and edit pages e.g:

  • Home Page
  • Contact Us Page
  • Policy Pages (Privacy etc)
  • Category Pages
  • Landing Pages

In common with many good CMS, especially open source examples, Magento has a theme that controls the look and feel of the site. Some themes can come by default, which can often be tweaked, themes can be purchased for companies (known as commercial themes) and of course you can design your own. This can often be where the fun/problems start. CMS theming is not designed to too difficult but some CMS themes are easier than others. Nearly all modern theme styles (colours, fonts etc) are controlled by CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and a good knowledge of HTML and CSS will certainly help you get started with theming. Magento is written in PHP and uses XML but very little knowledge is required in these areas to get to good results from theme designing although clearly knowledge of these is not going to be of any harm.

Even with a reasonable knowledge of CSS and HTML, Magento is known to be quite hard to theme and I think there is demand for a good book fully explaining end to end Magento theme designing so it’s great to see Packt Publishing releasing a dedicated book on theme designs for the latest version of Magento 1.4 by Richard Carter (author of many other good books on open source CMS’s).

I recently reviewed Packt Publishings’s Magento Development Cookbook where I wrote about a ‘cookbook’ style allowing you to dip in and out and I think it’s worth saying that in reading this Magento Themes Design Book, in my opinion, you will get the most benefit from starting at the beginning of the book and working your way through. There are are a few reason for this but mainly because Richard uses a particular way to create/edit themes and actually uses a live example most of the way through the book which he builds on as the book progresses. That said I am sure that someone with good Magento experience and CSS knowledge coud dip in and out and get a lot from the book.

Below I have summarised each chapter quickly and put my conclusion at the bottom:

Chapter 1: Introduction to Magento
The book starts with a good introduction to Magento including some examples of well known sites using Magento and explaining some differences between Magento 1.3 to 1.4. The introduction also includes a good install guide for anyone who is starting from scratch and installing Magento including how to get the all important file permissions correct.

Chapter 2: Exploring Magento themes
Themeing Magento can be challenging and I think it’s crucial that anyone wanting to theme Magento understands the basic concepts and terminology. Properly understanding the, often unique, key parts of Magento themes including the Skins, Layouts, Templates and Locales makes it so much easier even when you are only making simple tweaks. This is a well explained chapter and an introduction to some of the best practices in Magento theming that will be especially important when going through any required upgrades. Not following best practice can make the upgrade process more difficult as your theme can be deleted by being overwritten if you have changed the core Magento theme files.

Chapter 3: Magento Theme Basics
Even an ecommerce store that is planning on using the default theme still needs to change certain items on the site. This chapter covers essential items including changing the store logo and favicon (both of which use the Magento logo by default if not changed).

Chapter 4: Magento Theme Layouts
Chapter four starts at page 99 which shows how much information there is introducing Magento and looking at the basics which in my opinion is essential to anyone who ones to get the most from this book and from Magento theming. In this chapter we start to get into the meat of Magento theme design. Introducing Magento’s XML layout files and Block Names and their paths which can often confuse many people (including me). The chapter has some great details on using Path Hints to help understand how layouts are controlled which can be very important when trying to debug a design or just wanting to understand why a page or area looks the way it does.

Chapter 5: Non-Default Magento Themes
In this chapter Richard introduces the concepts of designing your own theme from scratch, which I think is what a lot of users want to do. The thing I like about this book the most is that Richard uses a practical example and starts to build up a new theme that we can then follow throughout the rest of the book. The example uses the best practice method for creating a new theme and as you might expect the chapter contains quite a bit of CSS (which can be downloaded from the Packt Publishing site if you buy the book).

Chapter 6: More Magento Theming
Much has been done to make the example theme individual already in the preceding chapter but one of the great things about Magento is just how much you can customise it. This chapter looks at ways you can use fonts which you would not normally think of using but can now thanks to integrating @font-face. In addition how you can change a stores navigation, login page and product views all things that will make your site original and hopefully stand out from the competition.

Chapter 7: Customizing Advanced Magento Layout
Despite the title of this chapter there are some great ideas explained in relatively simple steps and a lot are items that all Magento store owners should consider including getting better error message pages especially the horribly unhelpful ’404 messages’ that can be presented to your customers. Having error messages that are a bit more user friendly which should hopefully reduce your lost customers and improve your bounce rate. As covered earlier in the book Blocks can be used very effectively to add style and content in this chapter we see show we can add additional Blocks if required.

Chapter 8: Magento Templates
As should be expected of a fully functional ecommerce platform Magento has a full suite of transactional emails which can be automatically sent to a customer when orders are placed, products are delivered and account management tasks are performed (changing account password etc). But the real power of these templates is tailoring them with your own stores individual messages ensuring a communication experience with your customer. An area often neglected by many stores.

Chapter 9: Social Media and Magento
Having an open source and customisable platform like Magento means that you should be able to move quickly with the times. The current popularity of Social Media and Networking platforms in many areas of ecommerce is undeniable. Facebook and Twitter are the current favourites of ‘Social Shopping’ and in this chapter Richard shows how we can add the all important Social Media buttons (follow us on Twitter etc) and how widgets can be integrated into your store. Also how to include the now popular Facebook ‘Like’ button to your site and product pages so your items can be automatically posted to peoples Facebook profiles.

Chapter 10: Magento Print Style
As much as the web can be good for the environment, in saving paper, it is sometimes understandable that some customers will want to print off product pages for reference or sharing and having a nicely formatted and presented print format could help in getting that final sale. In the final chapter Richard explains how print stye sheets and in particular how theme specific print style sheets can achieve this.

Conclusion
I have read many books about Magento and in my opinion Packt Publishings are some of the best. Although there are some good general and cookbook style Magento books around I think Magento Theming is an area that requires a dedicated book and I would say that if you are serious about your ecommerce store and getting the most from Magento I think Magento Theme Design 1.4 by Richard Carter is well worth a read – cover to cover.

It is also important to note that many of the books currently available for Magento are based on version 1.3 that this book is currently as up to date as you can get (as far as I am aware all of the book is relevant to the recently released version 1.5) being based on 1.4, this is especially important as there has been some significant changes in the area of themes in version 1.4 from 1.3.

There is no doubt that Magento theme designing can be daunting and the more knowledge you have of HTML, CSS, XML and possibly of other CMS themes the less steep the learning curve well be. There is also certainly a big incentive to change the default theme as to me it is very ugly. The results you can get from just some of the techniques in this book can be make a huge difference to the look of you Magento store.

Overall I enjoyed the style of the book and particularly found the build up of Richard’s example site useful. A great feature of the book is that you can download the code used in the books which includes css files, xml files and even the images used in the examples.

Although not directly related to the book itself it is nice to see Packt Publishing supporting the ePub format as well as PDF. Also I think it’s worth mentioning how good it is that we have such strong writers on open source technologies in The United Kingdom (especially the North of the country), the author Richard Carter from Peacock Carter in the North East of the UK is clearly an expert in his field and it would appear from real hands on experience and not just theory.

If you have no CSS skills at all probably best to start with a good CSS book. Overall a great book for anyone looking to improve their Magento theming skills.

If you would like the chance to win this book there is a competition to win the Magento Themes Design 1.4 ebook on this blog which will end on Sunday 3rd April 2011

Full Disclosure
I received a free PDF book from Packt Publishing for the review and also a free pdf for a competition being run on this blog but as I already have a online subscription (which I pay for myself) I could have read the book for free so there is actually no real economic value in this for me. If I appear a Packt Publishing fanboy that is probably because I am but due to that fact that they release some fantastic books of which I would include this one. For even fuller disclosure, although I have access to affiliate links for both Packt Publishing and Amazon I have not included any of these on this post and no links on this post generate income for me. That is not to say that there are not other parts of my website or posts that do include affiliate links but where there are they will usually state it. I am not adverse to contributions to hosting costs etc.

  • http://www.earlgreyandbattenburg.co.uk Richard Carter

    Thanks for your kind words, Philip! As you say, I’ve written a few books for Packt now (all on theming) – one cookbook and 3 ‘normal’ format books – and I think the normal format books allow for a more in-depth look at the topic, though I can see the use in the cookbook format for more advanced users just looking for pointers for a particular task.

    Thanks again for taking the time to review the book, much appreciated!