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Grow your own: Learning custom base themes at Drupalcon Portland

Ah, base themes.

If there’s an analogue to the Windows/Mac/Linux battle in DrupalDrupal is an open-source content management system (CMS) used for many complex nonprofit sites. Other examples of CMSes include WordPress, Joomla! and Plone. land, it’s probably Zen< vs. Omega< vs. AdaptiveTheme<.

Garrett Dawson and John Ferris have a way out of that eternal struggle: Custom base themes. As they put it in their Drupalcon Portland session description<:

“By necessity, base themes make assumptions about how teams and individuals work. By rolling your own, you’ll become much more comfortable and informed about the Drupal theming layer, and have a better launchpad for your front-end projects.”

Here in Portland we take home gardening and permaculture< seriously, so what better place to talk about “growing your own” custom base theme!

I spoke with John and Garrett about how creating your own base theme can make work for you and your team easier. Take a gander at their session, “Dapper Drupal: Custom Tailored Themes,” on Thursday at 2:15 PM for the full story!<


IB: Base themes that are out there make some assumptions about how you want to theme. What’s the advantage to rolling your own base theme rather than finding the theme that already makes the assumptions you do?

JF and GD: If you can find a base theme in contrib that fits perfectly into your workflow, by all means, use it. There’s a lot of solid tools out there. We don’t want to deter people from using and contributing to them. With that said, we feel it’s unlikely a contributed base theme will be ticking all the boxes and making all the right assumptions about your workflow.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Your front-end process is heavily influenced by team dynamics, contrib module choices and a whole host of other considerations. The majority of base themes cannot account for those variables like you can. We want front-end developers to take a critical look at their tools to see where they can make improvements. That may mean creating a custom base theme; a custom starter theme for use with an existing base theme; or even a set of helper modules.

All the popular base themes started because someone wasn’t happy with what was available at the time. The ultimate goal is increasing efficiency while improving the quality of the final HTML, CSS and JS.

IB: Do you recommend custom base themes for big shops? Small distributed teams? Freelancers? Everyone?

JF/GD: Yes, all of the above. At least consider it as an option. If you find yourself doing any kind of repetitive work, there’s an opportunity for improvement. The only people who should steer clear of custom base themes are those new to Drupal. You need to be familiar with the tools that are available before setting out to create your own.

IB: Besides your the custom base themes you developed yourselves (Center< and Prototype<) what other custom base themes have you seen in the wild?

JF/GD: Yes! We’ve learned a lot working with and iterating on Center and Prototype. They work well for the structure of our team and the type of work we do at Aten<. However, we realize every team is unique. We were really interested in seeing how other organizations were approaching the front-end problem space. We chatted with a range of teams of varying sizes working across different industries. Everyone has their own unique set of tools based on their own strengths and constraints. We’re excited to share those with you, but you’ll just have to come and see for yourself!

Images: National Archives< and FlickrFlickr is a social media site for photographs and digital images. Like a social network, it allows users to “friend” one another, join groups, and see a recent-updates feed of their own and their friends’ images. Flickr is owned by Yahoo!. user McBeth<.