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.

Win a copy of Magento 1.4 Themes Design Book

Magento 1.4 Cookbook
As mentioned previously I have been reading Magento 1.4 Theme Design Book‘ for review and as before with the Magento Development Cookbook PacktPub have given a free ebook of Magento 1.4 Theme Design Book to offer in a competition . So if you would like to get a free copy of this e-book please leave a comment on this blog post leaving any comment you may have on Magento themes or the design of ecommerce stores in general.

Competition Rules (thought it best to avoid any confusion)

  • This is a free competition with no cost of entry open to all according to the rules below
  • Entry requires a comment to left on this website/blog post at http://philipoakley.org
  • All comments can be moderated on this blog and the site owner retains the right to delete inappropriate or spam comments
  • All competition entries must include a comment regarding eCommerce as outlined above
  • The competition will close at 11pm (GMT -UK time) on Sunday April 3rd 2011
  • One prize only
  • The prize consists of one electronic/digital ebook and does not include a physical copy of the book.
  • The prize will be provided by Packt Publishing on the supply of an email address by the winner
  • The winner will be announced on this blog with 24 hours of the closing time.
  • Review of Magento 1.4 Themes Design

    Magento 1.4 CookbookFollowing my review and competition for the Magento 1.4 Development Cookbook from PacktPub I am now reading Magento 1.4 Themes Design Book and will be posting my review here and again will be running a competition for winning the eBook.

    I will be reading the book over the next couple of weeks. I will post the full review on my blog once completed. Meanwhile there is also a sample chapter available. Full details of the competition to follow shortly.

    Magento 1.4 Development Cookbook from Packt Publishing Reviewed

    Magento 1.4 CookbookI have read quite a few books from PacktPub as they have range of books on Open Source Content Management Software a subject I am very passionate about. They also have many books on other technologies including many on open source software. I use the open source eCommerce platform Magento at work for clients and for some of my own sites so was very interested when asked to review a new Magento book from PacktPub ‘Magento 1.4 Development Cookbook‘. So as announced on a previous post and following a competition to win a copy of the ebook please see my review below (if you are happy with the style of book these Cookbooks are please feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs and go straight to the review):

    Before I get into the book review proper I think it is worth explaining a little a bit about these ‘cookbook’ style and named manuals. Most computer manuals and books do not require you to read through from the first page to the last, after all these are not novels but generally they do build from an introduction and often can require knowledge of a previous section as they build on your knowledge as you go through the book chronologically. Cookbook style manuals on the other hand are just what the name suggests – a list of ‘recipes’ which often so not require you to have read earlier articles to make sense of later articles. Cookbooks are often designed for you to easily dip in and out and get just what you need hopefully following the a tutorial (recipe) in the section to complete the task. This said, it can be important to remember that Cookbooks often require you to have a reasonable knowledge of the subject and its relevant environment or to continue the food/recipe analogy – to follow s Beef Bourguignon recipe you are expected to understand the basics of meat purchase, storage and cooking including how to use your cooker and other utensils.

    In the case of Packt’s new book Magento 1.4 Developement Cookbook I think it’s fair to say that to get the most out of it, it is an advantage to be relatively comfortable with Magento, the Linux command line and creating a development environment. This said, this might be just the introduction you need to these subjects and although a stiff learning curve for mere mortals (such as myself) a carefully worded Google search and a bit of spare time can often fill in the gaps. What this book is not is a ‘Beginners Guide to Magento’ mainly because Packt have already published this book here – Magento Beginners Guide. I have read this book and although not as up to date as this cookbook I would still recommend this as the best place to start for anyone getting to grips with Magento for the first time.

    A key to getting the right book is often understanding who the book is aimed at and according to the book itself:

    If you are a PHP developer or a novice or an experienced software engineer, who is interested in achieving high impact in a fast-paced development environment and want to boost your (PHP/Magento) development skills to the next level, then this book is for you. No prior experience with Magento is required but basic knowledge of PHP is needed.

    PHP knowledge is of course useful (all the required code is in the book and available to download) but as I mentioned above I think some knowledge of Linux and CMS’s in general would be advantage and if you have limited experience of Magento, to repeat myself, I would start with Magento Beginners Guide or as this Cookbooks tag line possibly sums it up better this book is ‘Quick answers for Common problems’.

    Right the Review of Magento 1.4 Cookbook starts here:

    Although this book is designed to ‘dip in and out of’ it does start with a very good guide to setting up a development environment and getting an IDE (Integrated Development Environment) – Netbeans which was used throughout the book although this is not an a beginners guide and I think the assumption is that you some knowledge of similar environments.

    Included in the book is a wide variety of articles to take your Magento install to the next level making your eCommerce site more attractive and more functional. Of course, we should never loose site of the aim of any eCommerce site which is too sell and get more customers and sell more to those customers (presuming that is your aim) and for me this book covers some of the main areas which can currently help you achieve this. These areas, in my opinion, being improving Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) specifically Google (important to all eCommerce businesses but especially important to UK and European Sites where Google is ridiculously dominant), integration to social media/networking services and analytics because – ‘what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done’ possibly a reversal of what Tom Peters may have said – ‘What gets measured, gets done’.

    Having a closer look at these three areas:

    Search Engine Optimisation for Magento
    Google has a massive influence over what gets sold on the internet for many reasons and even small improvements in a sites Google optimisation can have a big effect, in the cookbook Nurul Ferdous writes the articles:

    Using Google Website Optimizer
    Optimizing Magento store for search engines
    A whole chapter on ‘Performance Optimisation‘ – site speed has become a key factor to good Google ranking

    Social Media and Networks for Magento
    We don’t have to look far to see the influence of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter on our lives but for online businesses the importance of online networks can be even more pronounced without going overboard on the ‘Social Shopping’ buzz you do not have to have a million clicks viral campaign to be consistently driving traffic to your website using social sites and getting a serious ‘return on investment’ (ROI). In particular I found the following guides from the book really useful:

    Integrating WordPress in Magento‘ – Magento may have CMS functionality but WordPress is probably the best blogging software in the world so integrating the best open source eCommerce platform with the best open source blogging platform could certainly give you the best of both worlds.
    Creating a custom “Twitter handle” field in a registration form’ – Adding ‘Social CRM‘ elements to you customer tracking can be key to modern Contact Management
    Adding a Facebook ‘Like’ button in product page‘ – apparently (from my own experience) a must have on many consumer eCommerce sites now to tap into the 500 million people recommending products and services to their friends and seeing businesses benefiting from the network effect.
    Embedding a YouTube video in product details‘ – Peoples expectations of product pages are increasing daily, ASOS the largest UK ‘online only’ fashion retailer now has catwalk videos on all its clothing product pages and consumers appear to love video content, especially in attracting initial interest where it has been said web users are more likely to click a video than any other link or content.
    ‘Adding an RSS feed (last five tweets!)’

    Analytics
    Adding all of this cool functionality as mentioned above is great but if we have no way of tracking the benefits especially making comparisons to changes then we are never really going to know if all our hard work is paying off. This is why analytics are so key and with Google Analytics being free there is no reason why every site should not be using them. Time spent on analysing the ‘numbers’ should result in a serious pay back if you can easily see where the increased sales are coming from (and do more of it) and see the less effective promotions (therefore reducing or stopping them). Again some great articles in this area with:

    ‘Using Google Analytics for Magento’
    ‘Adding AdWords tracking code to order confirmation page in Magento’

    I have highlighted three particular areas that are covered in the book but of course there are many other guides included from implementing payment solutions like PayPal to a whole chapter on creating your own module. Selfishly it was these three areas I found the most interesting and also the ones that I think are key to taking a Magento eCommerce store to the next level which after all is what this book is all about. To see a list of all the chapters and articles the full table of contents is available to see online and you can even download a sample chapter from the Magento Developers Cookbook. As well as the physical book and a PDF available one of my favourite features of Packt is that they make the code available to download too (once you have registered with them).

    Conclusion
    Clearly, as explained above, this book is not going to suit everybody but for a someone who is relatively comfortable with Magento and the environment of their own install this book is crammed full of practical ideas that can have a direct effect on sales. While the guide’s are clear and well written some novices may need some further assistance or background information which is often available elsewhere or most probably covered in more depth in one other of Packt’s many books on Magento. Overall I would say this book is easy to dip in and out of and would be a wise investment for anyone looking to add functionality and get the most out of Magento.

    For complete transparency I received a free ebook copy of this for book this review and also ran a competition for another free ebook on this site (nothing else) and I was free to write what ever views I wanted whether negative or positive.

    Win a copy of Magento 1.4 Development Cookbook E-book

    Magento 1.4 Cookbook
    As mentioned previously I will be reviewing Magento 1.4 Development Cookbook‘ over the next couple of weeks but before then I have been offered a free Magento 1.4 Development Cookbook e-book that I can offer in competition on this blog. So if you would like to get a free copy of this e-book please leave a comment on this blog post leaving some interesting information on eCommerce either:

    • An interesting eCommerce site that you like and why
    • eCommerce sites you have worked on or plan to work on
    • or just anything you find interesting about eCommerce

    Competition Rules (thought it best to avoid any confusion)

  • This is a free competition with no cost of entry open to all according to the rules below
  • Entry requires a comment to left on this website/blog http://philipoakley.org
  • All comments can be moderated on this blog and the site owner retains the right to delete inappropriate or spam comments
  • All competition entries must include a comment regarding eCommerce as outlined above
  • The competion will close at 11pm (GMT -UK time) on Sunday 9th January 2011
  • One prize only
  • The prize consists of one electronic/digital ebook and does not include a physical copy of the book.
  • The prize will be provided by Packt Publishing on the supply of an email address by the winner
  • The winner will be announced on this blog with 24 hours of the closing time.
  • Review of Magento 1.4 Development Cookbook

    Magento 1.4 CookbookI have read quite a few books from PacktPub as they have range of books on Open Source Content Management Software a subject I am very passionate about. They also have many books on other technologies including many on open source software. I use the open source eCommerce platform Magento at work for clients and for some of my own sites so was very interested when asked to review a new Magento book from PacktPub ‘Magento 1.4 Development Cookbook‘.

    I will be reading the book over the next couple of weeks. I will post the full review on my blog once completed

    Extending Magento ecommerce for SEO and Social Media

    Magento is an open source (or open core if you prefer) ecommerce systems. Similar to WordPress with plugins, the great blogging platform, Magento has an architecture that allows extensions. Extensions allow 3rd party developers to add functionality to the core system. Over on Magento Connect the official Magento extensions site there are over 3000 extensions from erp/crm integration through to iPhone support both free and open source to some quite expensive premium extensions.

    I am currently working on a few Magento sites and below is a quick list of some of the extensions I am planning on trying out:

    Mass Mailing for WordPress and Magento

    ROYGBIV
    Creative Commons License photo credit: SC Fiasco

    Looking for an emailing solution for a newsletter or email campaign? MailChimp is an excellent mass mailing solution which also has a plugins for the WordPress blogging and content management system and Magento the open source e-commerce software. Links below to the two plugins:

    Magento Links (Open Source e-commerce)

    I am currently building and ecommerce site for my wife’s business using the open source ecommerce software Magento. Magento has got  a lot of good press since its launch and has won many awards and is very well thought of. There is no doubt that Magento is very funtional and flexible, Google and Paypal integration is particulary good. Essentially Magento is a Content Magento System but as user friendly as WordPress it is not. Like most great open source projects there is normally an answer to most issues on the web (via google) and below are a few links that have helped me a long the way. As I have still not completed my site no doubt there will be more links to come.