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5 Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Theme Design Website
Angelo Otterbein

“Finalsite is expensive!” Boy, when we hear that, it really drives us crazy. We certainly consider ourselves the premium provider in the market, and we know that when schools dig in, they understand why. But many who say that often also aren’t aware of our theme designs and entry-level software packages that have become a big part of the Finalsite offering.

Theme website designs continue to provide a smart and affordable option for schools looking to create a beautiful website and partner with Finalsite; in fact, we launched 15+ theme design websites in October alone! 

Theme designs are perfect for schools working on either a tight budget or timeline (or both!). You can create and launch a brand-new theme design website in as little as 60 days, or shorter if we plan accordingly with you in advance of kicking the project off.

Going with a theme design doesn’t mean your school loses out in quality or choice, either. While the decision to create a completely custom website is always available, our award-winning designers have created a library of more than 20 themes at your disposal, regularly adding and removing themes to keep the library fresh. And best of all, theme designs still allow for a great deal of flexibility when it comes to aesthetics and user-interactivity. 

To help inspire you, we’ve come up with five tips based on our recent launches to help you get the most out of your theme design websites. 


Finalsite offers more than 20 Theme Designs for schools on a tight budget or timeline

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1. First Things First: Photography Matters

So much of design comes down to great photography, and schools that make the most of a theme design put a priority on finding the best pictures. There are countless ways and opportunities to capture your school in action, and those that connect to the user make all the difference. Mentone Girls' Grammar in Victoria, Australia leverages one of our newer themes, Cornwall, to showcase big pictures of kids having fun and learning. The photos trigger an emotional response that communicates what the school is about beyond what the content says. This great image of four young girls in the School's signature red shows up on the interior Our Guiding Principles page, just one example of many throughout the site.

Mentone Girls' Grammar Screen Shot

Even in a pandemic, you can find compelling shots that supplement the content. Seven Hills School in Virginia did just that on its Experiential Learning page, featuring a student playing the guitar in a mask. Great hero images are on display throughout the website, but these sorts of interior shots help break up the content and connect with the visitor, especially when accompanied by accessible content, in this case an accordion that expands to share more about what Seven Hills calls "Exploratories".

Seven Hills School Screen Shot

Landmark Preschool makes excellent use of photos to keep visitors engaged as they check out pages other than the homepage. In particular, their “About Us” page features an adorable photo of one of their preschoolers. 

Landmark Preschool "About Us" page photo of preschooler having his foot painted

And their “Vacation Clubs” page features an equally compelling photo. We rarely talk to a school or district that doesn't have at least some good photos -- now it's time to just get them up there!

Landmark Preschool "Vacation Clubs" page photo  of two preschoolers painting

One final tip on pictures: keeping image and thumbnail sizes consistent throughout your website and posts creates a streamlined look that’s consistent across all devices: desktop, tablet, and mobile. Consistent image and thumbnail sizes across all pages can provide a better, more visually-appealing browsing experience. Think of it like reading a book: you’d expect a consistent font size and style from start to end, right? Suddenly switching size or style, or randomly switching between several or more at a time, creates a confusing, perhaps even frustrating, user experience. 

To do so, let’s head into Composer, click on the grey gear icon at the top of the Posts element, and head down to the “Formatting” section. From there, we’ll select the “Shape” option under the “Page Thumbnail” section. This is where you can adjust the size and shape of each thumbnail on the page.

Westside School "Edit Post Element Settings" menu for editing blog photo sizes

 The “Size” choice of “Large” is fine as is, but let’s change that “Shape” option from “Original” to “Rectangle”. Now, let’s take a look at the changes.

Westside School blog photos with consistent photo sizes

Much better, right? Now, all three thumbnails in the row are the exact same height and length, creating a visual consistency that makes it easier to look not only across this one row, but up and down the other rows on the page, too. Maintaining a consistent image and thumbnail size on every page across your website makes browsing your website just a bit easier. 

2. Your Homepage Should Answer the Five Most Important Questions

Theme designs were created to look amazing right out of the box. But we also want to provide visitors a positive user experience, which means being creative and thinking beyond the design.

Visitors likely first interact with your website through a search engine result, around 83 percent of visitors to be exact. This means that most people who access your school’s homepage are coming in completely blind. Use your homepage to not only create the best first impression, but also answer the five most important questions a new visitor is likely to ask

  1. What do you offer (grades, class size, etc.)?
  2. What makes you unique (programs, curriculum, etc)?
  3. How can I learn more about you (inquiry, tour, shadow day) ?
  4. Where can I find you and how should I get in touch if I have questions?
  5. Will I (or my child) fit in and succeed?

You can answer these broad questions in a variety of ways. Feel free to get as creative as you’d like while sticking close to your theme of choice. Let’s take a look at how Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis, Indiana answers these five questions using the Finalsite Avon theme, which features a standard navigation and utility navigation.

Heritage Christian School homepage screenshot

Heritage Christian School uses navigation best practices to simplify the user experience for current and prospective families. Plus, the “Request Info” call-to-action (CTA) button in the top-right is great for acquiring new prospect leads -- a simple and effective way to answer questions #3.

The school then directly answers questions #2 and #5 through both the homepage feature as well as the elements at the bottom of the page that links to pages explaining how Heritage’s teachers provide a unique experience as well as recent news telling the same but using more current stories. 

Heritage Christian School Homepage Screenshot

Lastly, the school answers question #1 and #4 with the theme’s footer which contains all the contact information a prospective parent or student needs to know, including a “Contact Us” link to the “Location & Contact Info” page, and social media icon links on the right side of the footer. 

Heritage Christian School homepage footer

Heritage Christian School also makes excellent use of the Avon theme to keep its community and new visitors up-to-date with a Calendar element towards the bottom of the page, complete with a custom image background for added flair.  

Heritage Christian School homepage calendar element

Similar to Heritage Christian School, the St. Pius X - St. Matthias Academy in California, leverages the Avon theme but ended up with a very different site, in part by virtue of a terrific video featuring scenes from the school day. A video montage is a great way to knock out #2 and #5! 

St. Pius X - St. Matthias Academy Website

Their website also incorporates the same navigation best practices to efficiently guide visitors through the website, helping to answer #1 and #2. Further down the page "PMA at a Glance" explains in just a few illustrations what makes the school unique, as well as the Why PMA? page, which is more descriptive and includes a video -- lots of ways to tackle #2.

St. Pius X - St. Matthias Academy Website At A  Glance

The footer is one place to reach out to get more information, including links to social media and the sitemap. The How to Apply page leverages Finalsite composer to provide a nice step-by-step guide to applying.

St. Pius X - St. Matthias Academy Website

Of course, both websites have clear ways to learn more about the school, using different language: "Discover" for Heritage Christian and "About" for PMA. Both sites have answered all five questions using a relatively short homepage by keeping close to their respective themes. Keeping things simple ensures that both schools make finding where you want to go is always effortless. 

Finally, let’s take a look at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett, Washington and their stylistic interpretation of the Westbrook Theme. 

Archbishop Murphy High School homepage screenshot

Archbishop Murphy had a lot of impressive statistics they wanted to showcase, so the theme's staggered grid was a perfect match, allowing visitors to quickly absorb a lot of impressive information. Any prospective student or parent that visits their homepage and scrolls down will see their impressive 100 percent graduation rate, small student to teacher ratio, and small class size average statistics, all of which answers questions #2 and #3.

Archbishop Murphy High School homepage statistics block

3. Learn How To Use Posts, Your Swiss Army Knife

A little-known secret: Finalsite Posts can do everything. Well, okay. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but it's an incredibly flexible and robust element that you can use in many ways, outside of just news and announcements.

St. Luke's School in New York City, for instance, upgraded their Theme Design with a Best Practice Asset for Posts to make an interactive curriculum guide, an important component of any parent's decision about where to enroll their child. Behind the scenes, content can be easily updated and tagging can enable easy sorting and grouping.

St. Luke's School Using Posts

Likewise, on its COVID-19 Healthy and Safety page, guidelines leverage a similar approach, but with very different content and for current parents, not prospective families.

St. Luke's School Using Posts 2

St. Mark's School, in Shreveport, Louisiana, takes advantage of the Posts search and tagging to enable users to quickly sort through all of their news.

St. Mark's School Posts

4. There's More To Life Than Just One Column

Composer offers a myriad of ways to combine page layouts and layout elements to build interesting and dynamic pages. But don't be overwhelmed by it all. Just experiment with two or three columns and consider how each column can supplement the other. Altus Public Schools did just that, using a two column for the Administration page, with the left focusing on the image and right including the pertinent content.

Altus Public School Screenshot

Meanwhile the Grounds and Maintenance page doesn't have a picture but using three columns makes for a complete and very useful page, even without a picture. Composer makes it easy to switch back and forth, move elements around, that you can try different options quickly to see what works.

Grounds and Maintenance

The Business Office page is just one more example of using a 3-column layout, but allocating the far right column for related downloads, a practical use of the sidebar.

Altus Public School Business Page

5. The Inside Scoop: Interior Pages Matter

While the homepage is critical for your first impressions, remember that most visitors use the homepage as a launching point to access the other pages spread throughout your website; in fact, by and large your users will spend far more time on the interior of your website than on the homepage.

An awesome homepage doesn't mean much if the interior pages are bland and unappealing; it’s like picking up a book with an exciting cover, only to discover the book is dry and boring once you’ve read the first few pages. 

National Child Research Center, a historic and leading preschool in Washington, D.C., does an excellent job of keeping visitors engaged as they navigate the website through consistent use of amazing photos, interactive elements (such as fillable forms), and unique infographics and charts. 

interior page for academics on NCRC's website

Conclusion

Theme designs offer schools the perfect balance of simplicity and customization. They’re perfect for schools on a tight budget or timeline, and schools are free to change as much or as little as they’d like with each theme by modifying individual components. By following these five tips, your school can maximize your choice of theme to design a best-in-class website sure to impress your constituents, staff, and alumni.


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angelo otterbein headshot
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angelo graduated valedictorian from St. Paul's School in Baltimore, MD and from Princeton University. Despite getting his degree in creative writing and English Literature, it generally takes some doing to keep him from programming and breaking websites. Just after graduating, he started Silverpoint, and grew it to over 300 schools worldwide before merging with Finalsite in 2013.

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