Getting Started With Magento Development and Custom Themes

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Good website design is vital to any e-commerce business for many reasons. It delivers an excellent first impression, strengthens your branding, makes it easier for customers to find products they want to buy, and provides an all-around great experience that makes users hesitant to leave.

Magento is a powerful platform that allows you to customize your store however you like, but it does have a bit of a learning curve.

Why and How to Develop Magento Themes

There are three main paths for choosing Magento themes: use the default theme, pick a ready-made theme, and invest in theme development from scratch. The first option is the easiest and cheapest, but while the default theme is good enough for a simple store, it might strike as too generic and fail to suit your unique needs.

A ready-made theme is an intermediary option that provides more flexibility without demanding too much time or money. Though other stores will use the same theme you chose, you can always customize it.

That said, if you find yourself needing extensive changes, that’s when developing a new theme makes more sense.

It’s tempting to cut costs as much as possible, but that would be a waste of Magento’s potential. Some e-commerce platforms require little to no technical expertise and allow users to quickly set up their stores but are usually nowhere near as robust as Magento. If you want to make full use of its capabilities, custom development is the way to go.

What Is Magento and How to Set up a Theme?

Magento is an open-source CMS (content management system) like WordPress and Drupal that specializes in e-commerce. The platform’s open-source nature means that its source code is openly available and fully customizable.

 Other advantages include reliability, security, outstanding performance, a wide selection of add-ons and modules, international support, management tools, multiple payment options, and many SEO (search engine optimization) features.

It’s easy to install Magento themes. First, you need to upload the theme’s folders and files to your installation root. The exact details depend on your hosting provider, but you can always upload the files through an FTP (file transfer protocol) manager as well. The next step is activating the theme in the store’s admin panel. Lastly, to view the changes, clear the Magento cache.

Note that you have to activate the theme in the admin panel regardless of whether it’s a ready-made theme or one built from scratch. The process is the same either way.

How Does a Document Theme Differ From a Style?

In web development, we split a website’s components into three categories: content, presentation, and functionality. We use the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) language to control the presentation. CSS works through styles, which define what each element in a page should look like.

We can have different styles for different types of buttons and paragraphs, for example. Learning CSS is the most fundamental prerequisite for customizing Magento themes (developing new themes requires many technologies besides CSS).

While styles apply to individual pieces of a web page, themes define what the entire site looks like. The development cycle of Magento themes involves a combination of styles, layouts, templates, images, and PHP and JavaScript code.

Custom Theme Development

The best reference guide for developers is the Magento documentation. It covers everything from modules to APIs and, of course, themes. Before we get started, we need to understand a few web technologies and how Magento uses them:

  • HTML, PHP, and PHTML

HTML is the markup language for structuring a website; you use it to describe the page’s content and its organization. PHP is the programming language in which Magento is built, running on the server and directly interacting with the database. PHTML files are simply HTML pages with PHP code, allowing us to dynamically generate content or change existing content based on the server’s data.

  • CSS and LESS

As mentioned earlier, CSS is the styling language we use to define a component’s appearance. LESS is a CSS preprocessor, practically a more powerful styling language with extra features that gets compiled into basic CSS.

  • XML

XML is a markup language like HTML. In Magento, it defines the layout of pages (a task that usually would fall under CSS) and information for publishing and distributing a theme.

  • JavaScript

JavaScript is a programming language that, unlike PHP, runs on the user’s browser. We can use it to add effects and functionalities to the site.

Magento Theme Customization and Configuration

Developing a theme from scratch can be quite overwhelming, especially if you’re unfamiliar with all the technologies. It’s a good idea to start by customizing existing themes. You only need to work on the CSS files if you want to make a small visual change, though LESS and XML are indispensable tools for more complex modifications.

For simple tasks, you might not even need any customization at all. Themes come with built-in settings you can adjust through the admin panel without editing the source code. This is called configuration, and it’s always a good idea to check if you can configure a feature before trying to customize it. If you can’t, evaluate if the change is necessary and worth the effort.

On the other hand, more significant changes require more knowledge of both the theme and Magento as a whole. That’s why it’s essential to precisely identify your goals and consider if it’s time to create a new theme.

Magento 2.0 Theme Development and How It Differs From Magento 1

Magento 2.0 introduced important updates that improved, among other things, its performance, functionalities, and user experience. The downside is that it became incompatible with Magento 1 themes. There are several options for users planning on migrating, but the simplest and cheapest of which is just getting a new Magento 2 theme.

If you want to recreate the old theme or build a new one from scratch, you need to understand Magento 2 themes’ basic structure:

  1. theme.xml stores information on your theme for publishing and distribution.
  2. composer.json is a package manager very similar to npm that makes it easy to handle dependencies through the composer.json file.
  3. registration.php registers the theme in the system.
  4. web folder stores your styles, fonts, images, and JavaScript files, each in their respective sub-directories.
  5. view.xml is where you set the image sizes for your products. You can also configure the aspect ratio, background, and transparency.

Of course, a complete theme will likely consist of many other files and directories. In particular, layouts, templates, and translation files are very relevant components. Check the documentation to see how they fit into the overall structure and how to create and customize them.

Best Design Practices for Magento

Online stores must continuously compete for the customer’s attention. This competition isn’t limited to other stores; social media services and apps are also desperate for this precious and scarce resource. Any minor hiccup can quickly make customers lose interest and go somewhere else.

To avoid this, e-commerce businesses must invest in good design practices that consider all aspects of user experience. Naturally, this applies to Magento stores as well.

Here are some important things to note:

  • Stick to data whenever you can

Base your decisions on hard data rather than your personal feelings. Track your visitors’ behavior, choose useful metrics, investigate them, and don’t forget about A/B testing. If your store is new and doesn’t have much data yet, follow well-established principles.

  • Make use of Magento’s upselling and cross-selling options

Upselling is when you make your customer a better offer they might be more interested in, such as a higher-quality product.

Cross-sells are complementary items your customer might want to buy alongside the product they’ve chosen. These strategies are easily configurable in Magento and help you provide personalized offers.

  • Optimize your store’s performance

While Magento stores can be both robust and fast, achieving great performance often takes quite a bit of work compared to more lightweight e-commerce platforms. Slow loading times cost you potential customers and penalize your search rankings, so make optimizing the website a priority.

  • Fix broken links and images

Broken links and images are yet another issue that annoys customers and can potentially ruin your rankings. These might seem like minor things, but they add up over time.

Is It Worth Investing Into Magento Development?

Building and managing an e-commerce business is an involved process, especially if you aim for long-term success. Magento is a great tool that allows anyone to develop highly polished and professional-looking online stores but demands commitment in return. It may look like a daunting task, but you can always start small and take one step at a time:

  1. Explore how themes work while customizing them. Try making small adjustments with CSS, then move onto more extensive structural changes.
  2. Learn how Magento is structured. Set up the bare minimum required for a new theme before progressively adding more components. Check the documentation.
  3. Always focus on providing a good user experience. Follow best practices, and don’t neglect proper maintenance.


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