Note: This post hasn't been updated in over 2 years.
Tumblr is a blog platform with a difference. It’s simple, social, and doesn’t require you to set up your own server. We caught up with a dozen of ThemeForest’s top Tumblr Theme authors to discover why they decided to develop for the platform, and what their experiences have been. Whether you’re considering Tumblr as an author or a buyer, you’ll find some insightful nuggets in this post.
Note: Responses from some authors may have been edited for clarity and brevity, but the meaning and intention of their words has been retained.
What motivated our authors to start creating Tumblr themes?
We asked the authors why they initially decided to start developing Tumblr themes. Their answers are interesting and varied. Each author shares their own story.
We actually started our career at ThemeForest from a Tumblr theme called “Gothic Dream“. We even had its “birthday” party this year!
Tumblr is purely a blog, and its themes are much easier to build than WordPress ones. This is a “fast investment” of time: you can build an OK theme in a couple of days, or a decent one in a week. Compare that to the half-a-year development cycle of an up-to-date multipurpose WordPress theme.
If your creation doesn’t resonate with buyers, wasting one week is not that big deal. But spending half a year for something that you will not recoup… Therefore, themes for Tumblr are great for new authors, in my opinion.
Patricia Carvalho (misspato):
Mario Maruffi (themebull):
Tumblr is easy to use, easy to customize, and accompanied by a social system that allows us to share our content with millions of people. I think it’s a unique social and very powerful tool that works.
It offers visibility to artists and creative minds from all over the world. It also allows everybody to create a professional website without technical knowledge.
Christine Wilde (ChristineWilde):
I once found this great quote:
It’s a truism that everyone has limitations related to their own skills and knowledge. Not just designers, even if this quote is only about them.
I’m no exception, so I revised my skills and started to search for some niche, where I could fit in. Those were the days when the word “Tumblr” appeared before my eyes over and over again.
So I did some research about this platform, and I found that Tumblr was a huge thing, and can be easily customized. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered the Tumblr category on ThemeForest only had around 40 templates in it, even though Tumblr was almost five years old, and already popular as hell.
I thought: This is my niche—an extremely fast growing platform with very little competition.
Phillip Smith (PHILSE):
I decided to develop themes for Tumblr due to my obsession with it as a blogging system. It’s a great platform to further your web design and development skills, as it is widely used, and one the easiest CMSs to use and take advantage of.
I submitted my first Tumblr theme just over a year ago. At that time, I was looking for ways to generate some extra income and depend less on freelancing for a more steady cash flow.
The learning curve to develop viable commercial WordPress themes just seemed too steep, so I was filled with excitement when I discovered there were premium Tumblr themes. I don’t remember how I landed in the Tumblr category—it was buried within the Blogging subcategory at the time.
I found that Tumblr’s templating system allowed me to go from design to theme without too much fuss, and I’ve enjoyed designing and developing for Tumblr ever since. I thought early on about branching out to WordPress, but there’s never enough time, and I’m a slow worker. So Tumblr is still the shorter path to theme creation for me.
We decided to develop Tumblr themes because it has over 170 millions blogs online. This means there are a huge number of potential customers! Also, preparing a Tumblr theme is very easy compared to the other platforms.
Alex Hommel (2lip):
When I started, the Tumblr section was pretty fresh, and there was not so much competition compared to the WordPress category on Themeforest. Besides that, I could only dedicated a few hours per week to these side projects, so a Tumblr theme would be finished earlier than a complete WordPress theme.
I also liked the challenge of certain limitations that come with designing a template that consists of only one HTML file and a few extra resources.
Boris Penev (VisualSharing):
I think Tumblr is one of the fastest and easiest ways to develop a theme. The platform took me just a few days to learn, and I don’t consider myself a good programmer. I think the Tumblr development team really had in mind the idea to make it very easy for a beginner to dive in quickly.
I really enjoyed and passionately followed Jeffrey Way’s tutorials, and a Tumblr Theme Design tutorial just popped out. He made quite a lot of noise about Tumblr, and because I learned HTML and CSS from him, I knew that guy will not waste his time if it was not good.
Syarip Yunus (Tofuthemes):
In the year of 2010, we faced difficult times deciding which products to develop further. Supplied with experiences in working on daily projects for our clients, we carried out some experiments to meet some massive needs—starting with making WordPress themes to explore the potential of OpenCart. We didn’t publish the results of the experiments, which ending up as junk files on the hard disk. It was something we had to go through to learn how to build good products, and mature.
In late 2010, one of our teammates tried to make his own portfolio by using Tumblr. After studying his portfolio thoroughly, and seeing that the final result was quite satisfying, we realized that designing a Tumblr theme was a lot of fun.
There were many features restricted by the Tumblr developers, so it became a challenge for us to make a different theme with the provided Tumblr templates. Based on that experience, we saw a good market potential, and learnt that there were not many developer teams focusing on developing Tumblr themes.
Finally, at the beginning of 2011, we decided to make a product which focused on Tumblr themes only. Along with the rapid popularity of Tumblr around the world, and the fact that may Tumblr users used it for their own businesses, we automatically had an increase in our product sales on ThemeForest.
This is best proved by two of our products, Popcase Tumblr Theme and Timeline Tumblr Theme, which sat in second and third place on the Most Sales category on ThemeForest.
Mike Buttery (mikedidthis):
I started developing Tumblr themes out of boredom, and wanting to learn something new! I didn’t have much freelance client work to do at the time, so I figured I would learn something new.
I started learning front end design with a back end developer, @rvause, who was using Python/Django. Django provides template tags that aren’t too far away from Tumblr’s theme operators, so it seemed like a good match.
What are the advantages of developing for Tumblr?
Their are significant differences developing themes for Tumblr compared with other platforms. We asked the authors about the advantages they have discovered.
Simplicity—Tumblr themes are a single HTML file.
- I enjoy the creative freedom. I love creating my own designs, building a theme and then publishing it to the world. It still amazes me to this day that people like my themes enough to purchase them, and that’s always a bonus. I also like helping customers with their problems, and they give nice feedback. I can’t really say there is anything I don’t like about creating themes. Maybe keeping up with Tumblr’s frequent UI design changes. I also like the fact that you only need one HTML file for the theme to work. Everything is neatly stored in the same file, which also makes it easier for the end user to edit. (ChristineWilde)
- Tumblr is an extremely easy and basic CMS. One can learn the ins and outs of Tumblr’s “Block” system in a few minutes. It’s in wide use, which makes it easy to gain exposure as well as feedback from theme users. (PHILSE)
- It is relatively easy and quick to create Tumblr templates. It’s also easy to prepare options for the template. No knowledge of PHP is needed. (PassionThemes)
There is a short learning curve.
- I think the short learning curve and self-explanatory development, plus my willingness to quickly get out something that I can sell. Of course, when I say quickly, it depends on the concept. That is exactly what I like about it—it can take five days or half a year to develop a theme, depending on what your design requires. (VisualSharing)
- So far, we’ve been enjoying the process of making Tumblr themes. Tumblr give support and information about updates, as the platform changes continually, be it the features, the latest dashboard layouts, and the like. The documentation given by the Tumblr developers really helps us in further study if there is a new feature. Every Tumblr theme author should follow staff.tumblr.com, since the Tumblr developer team always publishes the latest features there. (Tofuthemes)
- Anyone wanting to learn something new, who maybe hasn’t worked with a template syntax/language before, should try developing Tumblr themes. You don’t need a server, or even a text editor, as Tumblr provide both. Along with excellent documentation and a wide selection of tutorials online, it’s pretty easy to get going. I would also say that learning the Tumblr theme operators have given me a good base to work on other platforms. I have been able to create Shopify and Ghost themes, based on my experience with Tumblr themes. (mikedidthis)
You can add additional features so your theme stands out.
- The thing that I mostly enjoy, when developing for Tumblr, is adding a custom options for the users. Personalization is what I want to offer to my clients. I give them tons of options to help them customize the template they bought, and let them transform it to something completely different if that is what they desire. That’s why I always try to imagine what my potential clients might want to change/add/remove, and I implement those options with the hope to satisfy as many of them as I can. (adraft)
- One of the most appealing aspects of Tumblr development is the ability to quickly set custom options on your own. At the same time, not all designs need a full-blown option set, and sometimes it can be counter-intuitive to the idea of the specific theme. (VisualSharing)
- I also enjoy handling my customers requests or issues. Customers have a different perspective on things, and I have learned so much due to that. Supporting a customer and helping them take something I have created and tweak it to their needs is really fulfilling. (mikedidthis)
Flexibility – Tumblr has different post types and and can be used for different purposes.
- I enjoy handling the different post types. Tumblogs can come across as simple blogs, but having to support all the different post types can be a challenge, especially when you throw in the responsive side. (mikedidthis)
- Tumblr is multipurpose. It can be used as blog or portfolio. (PHILSE)
What are Tumblr’s limitations?
“Tumblr is not WordPress.” The platform has significant limitations when compared with the favorite of the blogging world. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. When answering this question, our authors didn’t hold anything back!
You can’t test themes locally.
- I love the simplicity and the templating system. I don’t like that we can’t test it locally, and upload it only when done. There’s a lot of copy/paste in their Customizer HTML field. (misspato)
- What I don’t like, is testing a theme, which translates to an endless repetitive task of copying and pasting the HTML code into the Tumblr dashboard, hitting the save button, and refreshing the browser in order to see the changes. (2lip)
- One downside of developing for Tumblr is its web-only environment. There is no desktop version, so custom themes are installed manually by copy-paste. But then again, those could be considered a facilitation, from a certain level. (VisualSharing)
- As a developer, I think the inability to develop locally all the way through would be Tumblr’s biggest drawback. (PixelMoxie)
It’s not as feature-rich as WordPress, but that can be a plus.
- Tumblr is not WordPress. By this I mean that it is not a platform with a free nature of open-source development. Thus, there are important development limitations. For example, we can’t freely set a custom size of a thumbnail image for a post, because there are limited standard sizes. (Although, with CSS, HTML and JS, you can get some custom results.) You can’t handle really advanced internal pages. These limits, however, are quite acceptable, because Tumblr is not WordPress. We must not forget the true nature of Tumblr. It’s a free social platform that lets us create a personal tumblog. The fact that someone might deem Tumblr a fully-functional platform does’t mean that it can meet the needs of anyone who wants to create and maintain a real website. The main scope is understand what Tumblr has to offer in relation to the target audience we want to reach. (themebull)
- There are certainly limitations if you compare Tumblr with WordPress or any other CMS, but as Tumblr has evolved so quickly over the past few years it is becoming more and more adaptable to different styles of blogs. With the added feature of being able to create custom pages, it is becoming more like a CMS everyday. (ChristineWilde)
- Tumblr doesn’t have as much flexibility as other CMSs, such as WordPress. Themes are contained within one file, though that’s also a positive if you find one file easier. (PHILSE)
- I’ve used WordPress for client sites and personal projects before, and I’m sure building commercial WordPress themes is a more complex affair than developing for Tumblr. But other than that I have no further experience with other platforms. (PixelMoxie)
- There a limitations, like the absence of a custom post type or direct FTP access. Also, implementing some more advanced SEO best practices is difficult or impossible. (2lip)
- I think the specific option types and lack of good category organization might feel a little limiting and clumsy at times, but that is a good excuse to use the power of the limitation creatively. (VisualSharing)
- Developing Tumblr theme has its own difficulties compared to other platforms, because we have to follow the rules which have been carried out by the Tumblr developer team, so that we’re not free in customizing. However, the limitations of customization force us to be more creative in making new Tumblr themes, and that has been an interesting challenge. (Tofuthemes)
- Yes, Tumblr is quite limited, but that’s also a plus. Some platforms have too many features, and simplicity can be a breeze of fresh air. Tumblr allows us to create a simple blog, portfolio or site if we have the right theme in such an easy and pleasant way. Also, their mobile apps are enjoyable to use. And it’s free, no hosting or server code to maintain. (misspato)
Adding additional features can be a challenge.
- You have to think of unusual approaches and solutions to create a Tumblr theme that stands out. It’s an art form. (Dream-Theme)
- Tumblr is limited by its nature. It’s a blog with post formats. Themes are accommodated into single HTML file, so it’s a great challenge to create something different with these limitations. (Dream-Theme)
- I enjoy the simplicity of the platform, and how easy is to bring a design idea to life—relatively speaking. The flip side of that coin is that many features, while easy to implement, leave absolutely no room for customization. The “like” and “reblog” buttons they introduced a few months ago use inline SVG—which truly is a step forward—but they are rendered inside iframes, and can’t be styled without hacky workarounds, just to mention an example. (PixelMoxie)
- I have to mention the mental challenge to overcome certain limitations of the platform. For example, how to build a featured content slider without having a custom post type at my disposal. (2lip)
- Yes, “limitation” is the common term I use, when I reply to my customers’ emails. I have a lot of ideas that I would like to implement in my templates, but I simply can’t, because of those limitations. Fortunately, imagination, inspiration and experience help me to find some new tricks and hacks to make more and more things feasible. (adraft)
- I think all platforms have limitations. With Tumblr, the limited theme operator logic can be difficult to work around sometimes. Also, the lack of theme API slows down the development process. Tumblr is moving in the right direction with theme development. They have improved the customisation area, added lots of new theme operators, and keep it all well documented. (mikedidthis)
- I leave unsaid what I don’t enjoy about developing for Tumblr, because my list would be much longer than the longest grocery list you can imagine. The thing is, that Tumblr is a great platform for publishing, but a real nightmare for the developers. (adraft)
Less effective SEO.
- In terms of SEO, to be honest, I do not enjoy the quality of the code generated. Yes, we can configure a second level domain, create a sitemap, and easily manage meta tags dynamically optimized for reading by the web crawler spider. But there’s not really very good SEO. A Tumblr theme revolves around a single code file. This page contains all the inner sections of the site, which means that an SEO purist certainly will not be satisfied with the quality of the generated source code. Not to mention the inadequate accessibility level for screen-reader users. (themebull)
The Tumblr team could be more open to feedback.
- I would also like Tumblr to be more open to user feedback, and more transparent about updates and plans for the future. For such a large network, they should pay more attention to those who develop themes for their platforms (and use it). (misspato)
Who should consider Tumblr for their blogging platform?
Tumblr’s not for everyone. Is it for you? That’s an important question that needs to be answered.
themebull shares how helping his clients make that decision is an important part of the process:
Tumblr is free web service that allows anyone to create, customize and manage a website (of a professional nature, albeit limited in some respects). Offering an immediate visibility, ease of management and unique flexibility.
Of course we must be aware that Tumblr can not represent the technical needs of everybody. So, once we figured out the target and the goals to be achieved, we can decide if Tumblr is right for us or not.
To help you with your decision, our authors weigh in on who they feel would get the most benefit from Tumblr:
- Tumblr is mostly used by visual people, and blogging comes next. I would recommend it for everyone who wants a simple blog or portfolio, as it is so easy to use. And currently there are so many beautiful themes to choose from. (misspato)
- Professionals, companies, artists, and everyone in the human race. But, before choosing Tumbr, we should understand the objectives we want to achieve. Who is our target audience? Creative stuff that requires immediate visibility, a parallel tumblog of our own site, a personal or temporary showcase, are perfect for Tumblr. So are viral web-marketing strategies, thanks to the highly sharable content that reigns on Tumblr. (themebull)
- Anyone that wants a quick solution to get their work out there, and be seen by potential employers or clients. People who love writing blog articles, but do not want the headache of setting up a dedicated website or WordPress blog. Also, anyone who has a little coding knowledge and would like to customise their own theme. (ChristineWilde)
- Who? Me, you, your neighbour, your neighbour’s lover, the person who’s reading this now, and everyone else. I know from experience that my templates are used by people representing many circles of interests. For example, musicians, photographers, actors, filmmakers, poets, designers, models, amateur and professional bloggers, and even at least one nuclear physicist. So, no boundaries. And why should anyone consider Tumblr as a platform? In short, because it’s free, simple, easy to use and customize, and it has a huge audience. (adraft)
- Everyday bloggers. You can’t beat the accessibility, ease, and community of Tumblr. It also works great for portfolios. (PHILSE)
- In my opinion, Tumblr is a great platform for bloggers (of course!), and any kind of visual artist or content creator in need of an easy-to-use and flexible portfolio solution, who wants to leverage the social factor as well. One of Tumblr’s biggest advantages is how “discoverable” and “shareable” everything is. They’ve taken measures to fix content attribution—or the lack of it—but I see how that can be a problem sometimes. (PixelMoxie)
- People that need just a simple blog or portfolio with simple administration panel should consider Tumblr as a platform. Some themes can be used as company pages, and the Flat theme is very good for this. (PassionThemes)
- Personally, I would recommend Tumblr to people who want to churn out lots of content at a fast pace, without the need for much editorial work. I would not use it as a company website, just as an add-on to an existing website. Also, the possibility for using it as a portfolio is somewhat limited, so I would recommend other platforms for that. On the other hand, if you are into animated GIFs, Tumblr is totally for you! (2lip)
What features should buyers be looking for in a Tumblr theme?
So, you’ve decided that Tumblr is for you, created an account, and headed to ThemeForest to decide on a theme. How do you choose? Here are some thoughts that may help.
- Trendy or unique design, unusual layouts, fancy animation. (Dream-Theme)
- It would depend on their objective, but if they are after a blog site, they should be looking for a theme with great typography and hierarchy between elements. If it’s a portfolio, one that shows their work as thumbnails on the home page. Customization options are also very important, so the ability to change colors, add other functionality (like Ta witter feed or other widgets) might be useful. (misspato)
- A layout focused on the content. Subsequently, a great navigation bar and some social tools for sharing and comments. I think the key to success is an easy-to-navigate design that puts the spotlight on the content. And obviously, I could say, respect for all the default functionality that Tumblr provides. If they decide to create a creative portfolio, some elements could be reconsidered in view of the expression of their own style, but when it comes to functional features, an easy-to-use website focused on content can’t wrong. This applies to everyone, not just for Tumblr. (themebull)
- This all depends on what the user is going to use their blog for. If they are just going to create a portfolio, then look for a portfolio theme. If they are primarily a blogger, then look for a nice blog theme that supports all of the post types. (ChristineWilde)
- If they want to use Tumblr as a raw platform—for simple published text and other multimedia, without any fancy design and features—they can do that as soon as they register. Sooner or later, they might decide that they need something more. Fine, there are plenty of free or commercial templates, ready to use at any time. Need a comments system built-in under your posts? Want to analyze who your visitors are? Want to change the default fonts or colors? Want to remove some features with a single click? Want to change the word “Home” in your navigation to something else, without touching any code? No problem, custom templates can do all of this and a lot more. Just visit the Tumblr category on ThemeForest, read the descriptions of the templates, and check out the demo versions to find out what else can be done. (adraft)
- Like and Reblog buttons are great for interaction with the Tumblr community and your followers. Social sharing buttons are great for getting your content seen outside the Tumblr network. High Res image support—nothing beats big beautiful images in your blog/portfolio. Since Tumblr doesn’t offer comments within their CMS, Disqus does a great job at filling the void and adding a little more discussion and sense of community. (PHILSE)
- I think design quality and uniqueness should be the deciding factor when “shopping” for a Tumblr theme, whether is a premium theme or a free one. Code quality could be considered a feature as well. While those that aren’t code-savvy may not be able to tell whether a theme is well coded or not, anyone can appreciate how well a site responds to user interaction. Themes packed with useful features obviously have an edge, if you need them. Sharing widgets and buttons, a well thought-out Twitter feed, custom image galleries and light boxes, responsiveness. For a non-coder, this extra functionality might be difficult or impossible to implement well, while the same features could be disabled or removed if one doesn’t want them. Lastly, even when some of my themes are packed with appearance options, I don’t think this should be a deciding factor. If a theme fits the bill design-wise, one doesn’t need to be put off by the lack of customization options. When making a theme really your own, a lot can be accomplished with some custom CSS if you have some skills. (PixelMoxie)
- Nowadays, all new themes should be responsive, and in general they should be compatible with all major browsers. In addition, generic themes should support all post types, have Google Analytics integration, social media sharing options, and in some cases retina support. I also think that theme documentation should be easy and straightforward. (2lip)
- Based on a small research project we have conducted, Tumblr users generally demand a more specific theme. For example, a theme that is specially used as a portfolio, or a theme that is used for business. The user realizes that there are so many advantages from the Tumblr platform, especially in the fast delivery of information to the public. For example, there are features like follow and reblog that spread information to the Tumblr community around the world in just a few seconds. (Tofuthemes)
After reading all that, authors may start to realise that they have quite a job ahead of them. VisualSharing talks about the process he goes through when designing a theme that will meet the varied needs of users, and has some thoughts that make a great conclusion to this article:
I think it should be looked at on a case-by-case basis:
- First, I would consider whether I want the theme to be for specific or for general use. It should not be too specific or too general—that is the thin razor blade of good template design. Find out what Tumblr users need that is not there, and combine it with the best practices and most common features.
- Consider real-life scenarios: imagine yourself being a Tumblr user from a specific niche, and check if anything is missing (or excessive). Then do it for another niche, then another. See what is common, what is different, and then adjust the balance.
- Or, simply forget it all and go with your intuition.
That is what I do and that is the real reason that I was happy to answer all of those questions. To remind those who wish to develop themes for Tumblr that if they resonate with the idea of the platform, then they should go for it, no matter what anyone says about it – including me.
Thanks to our top Tumblr authors for their help in creating this article.
Are you an considering adding Tumblr themes to your portfolio? Are you a buyer considering moving to Tumblr for your blogging platform? How has this article helped you with your decision? Let us know in the comments!