Choosing WordPress themes – paid vs free

Changing your blog design is a bit like redecorating your home; invigorating, frightening, and possibly expensive. After all is said and done, the redesign probably makes you wonder why you didn’t do it earlier.

Despite being trained as an industrial designer, my web design skills are quite beginning level. I can work my way around code by trial and error, but never having been formally trained, things can get ugly quickly. Not to mention the fact that it takes me to figure out these changes since I’m doing it mistake by mistake.

The route I’ve taken with this blog since 2002, is “if it ain’t broke…. leave it alone!” and I’ve strived to focus on content, writing, and photos.

As I mentioned, things lately have become broken, whether due to someone breaking into my FTP login, through third party software, or simply due to me being slow to update the WP software. It’s been giving many people ‘malware warnings’ and surely will begin turning some of you away.

In the past week I upgraded WP twice, now to the latest – 2.8, and also upgraded K2 (the theme I use) to the latest nightly. However, with these upgrades, I also realized that K2 no longer seems to be as usable as previously. (unless it’s just me).

I find it time for a redesign. Something fresh. Perhaps daring and bold. But the bottom line is that it still needs to be easy to navigate, and should focus on maintaining my 7 years of archives. This is where I begin to falter.

If my images from years’ past are all 500px fixed width, how can I easily bring those into a new theme without things getting ugly? Not all themes will work nicely with photos, and dealing with the archives will be my weakness. If anyone has thoughts on integrating a new theme with my 7 years of blog posts, I’d be very appreciative.

At the moment I’m trying to decide whether or not it’s worthwhile to pay for themes. In some ways it goes against the WP philosophy of open source sharing, but the reality is many paid themes will be more carefully designed and perhaps have better support in place, and updates on a regular basis.

The themes that draw my attention first and foremost seem to be heavily based on the visual; incorporating large photos and visual based navigation. These may or may not be inviting to the typical user and I’m guessing they may not load as quickly as more text driven sites. However, looking at my current blog, I have no less than 8 larger images on the front page, so the other themes may actually be faster loading if I limit the size and number on the loading page.

The other thing that I’m unsatisfied with, is the fact that I have always had set up to bounce to /blog – and never used as the splash page – seems more fitting. I also have a photoblog that is geared more towards just imagery. However, the code I use for that is not holding up well with newer versions of WP.
If you were in my shoes, would you stick to a separate blog and photoblog, or go for a blended medium between the two, limiting things to one site?

I have a two week window in which I can work on this stuff. After that, I’ll be flat out on the Manila transition for a while. So, it’s all or nothing at the moment. If all else fails I’d at least like to rid myself of the ugly blue header – the code for my rotating header images also isn’t working.

Shouldn’t this all be a little easier?