Drupal 101: Look and Feel

I’m wrapping up the Drupal 101 series with some talk about Drupal themes, and some additional info on topics that we’ve already covered. The goal of these posts is to give new Drupal administrators an idea about how Drupal works, and some pointers to the key add-ons and resources in the broad Drupal ecosystem. For reference’ sake, we started with an intro, moved on to Modules, and then covered navigation. So, now that we have a functional web site, what does it look like?

Getting Themes

Drupal comes with five or six themes to choose from, and, if you use them, then your site will look very, um, uninspired. This might not be a problem if your goal is not to impress your visitors, but simply provide information or functionality, but, if you’re putting up a website for your organization, you want one that stands out from the crowd. So you have two choices: you can find a better, less common theme, or you can customize one of the default themes.

The first place to go is to Drupal Theme Garden. This is where many Drupal theme designers share their work. Here, you can either find a theme to use (or customize for your use), or get a good idea about the types of things you can do with your theme.

Customizing Themes

From the Administration menu, you can modify any theme’s main text elements, deciding whether or not to display your site’s mission or slogan, name or logo. And you can replace the default “droplet” logo with your own logo (a no-brainer!). Assuming that you’ve started with a theme that you really like, this might be enough. But, if you want to do more serious customizations, such as moving the logo to the center of your header or changing the site colors, you’re going to need basic web 4.0 programming skills and, most likely, some level of comfort with the PHP scripting language.

Most themes consist of one or more style sheets, a number of “tpl” files with PHP/HTML code laying out various page elements, such as blocks, footers and sidebars, and one called page.tpl.php that establishes the overall page layout. The main styles are usually stored in styles.css, and you can make a lot of changes to your site’s appearance here, modifying default background colors and images, placing and resizing content.

If that’s not enough, most customizations can be done using WordPress’s internal macros and functions, meaning that you won’t have to worry about assigning variables or what goes into the foreach loops. WordPress has simple commands that you can insert into a page to loop through your posts and display them or list your categories in the sidebar. A nice breakdown of the WordPress functions can be found at WpExplorer.com.

If you do modify the stylesheets and templates, make sure that you are storing your themes in sites/default folder and that you’re properly backing up whenever you do an upgrade. If you modify theme files in the main themes folder, and then upgrade to, say, a Drupal security fix, your modifications will be overwritten. In general, themes remain functional from dot release to dot release (e.g., what worked for Drupal 6.1 still works in 6.9), but the Drupal maintainers often make dramatic changes in number versions, so don’t assume that your theme in Drupal 6.9 will not be messed up if you upgrade to Drupal 7 (coming soon).

More Installation Options

In the first Drupal 101 post, I mentioned Fantastico, a two-click installer for Drupal available on most hosting services that use the cPanel site management interface. I subsequently ran into this useful article about Elefante and Simplescripts. These are packages that you can use to install a variety of popular open source applications, including Drupal.

In addition to application installers, there are other options for installing Drupal:

Customized Drupal installations like Open Atrium and Acquia come with more modules and functionality.There’s been some development and discussion about Installation Profiles, a Drupal add-on functionality that lets you define additional installation details, such as module defaults and inclusion of additional modules and data for distributing custom Drupal installations.


What I hope this Drupal 101 series has done is to offer some context and guidance for people new to Drupal who are about to give it a try, and some backing to my initial proposition that Drupal’s strength is it’s flexibility. Along the way, I’ve received tweets asking “Why Drupal?” and my answer is that Drupal isn’t the only CMS out there, or necessarily the best one for your web site. There are a huge variety of commercial and open source options. In fact, my personal website runs on a combination of Frog CMS and WordPress, because I wanted a simple tool for integrating RSS feeds, which Frog provides, and a powerful blogging platform. On the other hand, last week the White House ditched their commercial CMS for Drupal. So this series might also inspire you to look elsewhere, particularly if a more traditional, tree-structured content management interface will work better for you than Drupal’s layout by association model. Whichever way you go, we suffer more from a surfeit of good options than a lack of same.

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