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One of the most attractive things about using a CMS is not having to build every single page in your site by hand. Basically, the CMS can automatically generate pages based on your site organization and content. This is primarily done through the use of themes and templates. So what are templates and themes? Well, I have to admit, the terminology used to describe page generation in content management systems can be a bit confusing. The terms 'templates' and 'themes' are used frequently across multiple content management systems, but they don't always mean the same thing.
In a general sense, a template refers to a single file that contains generic content. Themes, on the other hand, are usually a collection of templates, or presentation rules, that control how sections or even entire sites are displayed. To help add some clarity to these terms, I want to talk about some of the basic methods that various CMSs use to generate pages and site structure and then how templates and themes come into play within those systems. In some cases, templates, which can either be the system's default templates or templates that you've created, are tagged with dynamic regions indicating where content should go and what type of content to use.
These templates are often labeled in the CMS as a page type. When a user generates a new page, they simply choose a template they want and a new page is created using the template's layout. In some cases, these templates operate independently of each other, while in others the templates can be grouped or controlled through use of themes. In those cases, themes can control not only which templates are being used, but options like color schemes and typography as well. Drupal is a really good example of a CMS that works this way.
Another common means of building pages is to assemble pages from a collection of page regions. This modular approach allows users to have multiple headers, footers, content regions, and sidebars to choose from. In these situations, the page regions themselves are often referred to as templates. You might have four sidebar templates and two footer temples to choose from, for example. In this system, themes often describe the dynamic files and the complex logic they contain that's used to create pages from the various template modules.
WordPress is a really good example of a CMS that builds pages this way. From just those two examples, it's easy to see that the terms 'template' and 'theme' are not interchangeable from one CMS to another. In some cases, you'll be able to access and modify the template or theme code directly, while in others you'll need to understand how the themes are assembling pages to accurately modify the template files. Regardless, it's important to understand how templating and theme-based architecture works in whatever CMS you decide to use.
You'll also want to make sure when you're selecting a CMS you carefully explore how it uses templates and themes. You should research how easy it is to customize templates, change or apply themes, or modify the logic of default themes. It's easy to get frustrated with a CMS if it doesn't give you the amount of control over the layout and presentation of your site that you require. What's more, designers, developers, and non-technical users are likely to have dramatically different goals regarding how they're going work with templates and themes.
Explore this carefully so you can make sure that you have a CMS that uses templates and themes in a way that makes it easy to achieve your own goals.
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