Theme designers – what you need to know about WordPressMU

Theme designers – what you need to know about WordPressMU

First off, I know there has been some confusion over themes for WPMU, but I can say that 99% of the themes out there work in WPMU. They often require some edits for personal preferences, but what theme doesn't? Mostly what I'm going to talk is how themes are used in a WPMU environment. In the case of someone running a WordPressMU install, they want to just be able to drop in some themes and go. If there are a lot of edits needed, chances are the admin will drop it and pick another theme. Having a theme on a WPMU install means exposure - LOTS of exposure.

There are two uses for themes in a WPMU environment. One is on the main blog, or home page. The other use is for the users. That is, members who sign up for a blog.

WordPressMU themes for users
In a WPMU install, the most important thing to remember is that users can't edit themes. See how themes are used on That's what I'm talking about. So if your theme has a hard-coded area in the sidebar that says something like:

Author info:
Just edit sidebar.php and put in a little information about yourself.

WPMU site admins are going to have to take that out. Check your theme over for any hardcoded areas that need changing, or any areas you expect the theme user to edit manually.

Themes are also shared between users. This is another reason you don't want hardcoded areas. If I manually edit the theme for one user, all other users with access to that theme see the same files. Which leads me to my next helpful tip.

Widgetize that theme already!

Yeah, yeah, I know... on my own personal blogs, and this one, I like to edit the sidebars myself and tweak things as need. Sometimes it's plain easier to edit the files than it is to mess with clicking and dragging widgets. But on a WPMU setup, that's one of the few ways users have to customize their look.

If there's a header graphic, consider adding the custom header API to your functions file so users can personalize the theme further.

And finally, if you can and if the theme calls for it, consider an options page for extra frills. It's just a nice touch and users will be able to add or change all kinds of goodies in the backend.

I also feel that as the single-user version of WordPress reaches a larger and more non-technical user base, easier theme management from the backend will probably turn out to be the eventual norm.

WordPressMU themes for the home page

Ahhh, here's the good stuff. First off, in my experience, every WPMU Site Admin wants something different on their home page. I'm not suggesting theme designers make a WPMU home version with WPMU-specific code in it. I'm just doing an overview so designers understand what Site Admins generally are looking for.

In MU, the main blog is also the landing page of the entire site. Many admins get a theme with an included home.php file or whip up their own. In this way, the main blog is sort of shuffled off to the background, while the home.php page can showcase some sitewide features.

There are many wpmu-specific plugins and code out there to pull sitewide data onto the home page, and like I said above, everyone usually wants something slightly different. In terms of design, I find that grid or magazine layouts lend themselves well to being adapted to a home theme.

And one more tip.

The last thing I'll mention is theme hooks. Make sure your theme has to proper and standard hooks in it, namely wp_head and wp_footer. On a WPMU site, these are widely used in plugins to insert code automatically in themes for (in some cases) thousands of users.

So there's a general overview. I hope this gives you a little bit of insight into how themes are used in a WordPressMU-driven site. If I left anything out, you have a tip of your own, or even a question, feel free to leave a comment.

  • Budi
    Posted at 00:16h, 11 November Reply

    Hi, this site is really something! What I mean is I have search for long time to see this kind of tutorial for my WP site.
    Oh, I still building my WP site.
    Wait for your next tutorial.


  • IndieLab
    Posted at 10:39h, 11 November Reply

    Great post Andrea. Reaching out to would-be WPMU designers is an often neglected area. Your points are well taken and inspirational in me thinking of a redesign of the IndieLab front page…

  • Barry
    Posted at 11:49h, 11 November Reply

    Can I add a new one:
    If you are going to need to include Javascript libraries then consider loading them in the themes functions.php file using wp_enqueue_script rather than hardcoding them into the themes header. That way, those of us using plugins or code to load cached (google hosted or other) libraries in their place don’t have to mess about altering every theme.

  • Klark
    Posted at 22:21h, 11 November Reply

    recently went through this list

    Lots of them are perfect for MU, well designed with no hard coded features.

  • creativeherb
    Posted at 00:50h, 14 November Reply

    I think simplicity is key to wpmu theme design. With all the possible elements and functionality of a wpmu site, it’s too easy to get sucked in and design something that’s way too cramped up.

  • Art Deco
    Posted at 22:41h, 30 December Reply

    Doing my first WPMU setup for people in a specific industry and I’m really fussing about how many themes to support. One really flexible one that fits the industry sounds nice, but I know that will never work out and I don’t want to spend time tweaking themes for clients since that is endless once begun.


  • gareth
    Posted at 00:28h, 23 June Reply

    How do I add a list of the sub blogs (subdomains) using php in my themes sidebar navigation ?

  • Mitch
    Posted at 01:08h, 29 June Reply

    I’m going through this myself with a lot of themes I have downloaded for the free blog site I’m working on. the themes that have option panels or frameworks (I think that’s what its called) to add graphics seo stuff and ads. when used on a multi site WP 3.0 add on site the control panel, framework whatever the author will call it(options) will not show and theme is useless. An article needs to be written about the code needed to show add on sites an option panels or frameworks in the appearance tab

    • andrea
      Posted at 07:29h, 29 June Reply

      Like I said in another reply to you, it depends on where you got your themes.

      The code for an options page is NO DIFFERENT for multiple sites. the ones that don’t work were just not done properly.

      Get themes out of the official repo.

      • Mitch
        Posted at 08:12h, 29 June Reply

        Thank you andrea I will I have only seen 2 that said for wp 3 in the official repo.
        I Will look again.
        The more I talk about the subject the better chance that a theme designer will see it and say to him/herself wow 3.0 is out I should get up to speed.
        Then again maybe not.

        • andrea
          Posted at 08:15h, 29 June Reply

          Well, you were talking about options pages. There’s plenty of those in the repo.

          Nothing changed for themes in 3.0 except the addition of new features. A theme that worked in 2.9 will work on 3.0 just fine.

          The theme I’m using here hasn’t been updated for 3.0 and it’s running on a network. All my sites run on a network. I test hundreds of themes a year.

          • Mitch
            Posted at 08:33h, 29 June

            The custom menu and options page working for an add on site are very important to me I don’t want a user creating a site with a new version of wp and can’t use the features it a selling / controlling support tickets point for me.
            I know wp 3 just hit the streets but I beta tested it from day 1 and was setting up the site with it and let the last thing to do themes and Bamm not very many. sorry for rating on the subject I thought by joining a theme plan that it would be smoth going from there but turns out that developer did put in support for the new features but let out the add on sites.
            I know you have heard it many times. Thank you for doing what you do for wpmu / wp and the little people be-hide the keyboard. its nice getting a think you.
            I’m going to stop ranting and raging now time for a 3rd cup of coffee :>

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