Book Review: Drupal 5 Themes

Drupal 5 Themes book sleeveAimed at those with a knowledge of HTML and CSS but with no prior experience of programming, Drupal 5 Themes sets out to show you how you can quickly and easily get a drupal site up and running with a highly customised look and feel.

Drupal is highly themeable, with most aspects of the user interface being accessible purely in the theme layer without needing to dip into module development or the CMS’ core. The book takes the user through the various theme hooks and introduces the simple PHP code needed to override them, add new ‘regions’ (in which blocks can be displayed), customise existing themes and create your own (almost) from scratch. The primary focus is on the default theme engine, PHPTemplate, but others are referenced and a little time is spent on the options for building your own theme using raw PHP (without the extra layer of a theme engine).

For the most part the content is straightforward, and the reader should quickly get a feel for the naming conventions that drive the PHPTemplate approach. While not much programming knowledge is needed, it would be helpful for the reader to have a basic grasp of PHP and introductory programming constructs such as loops and conditionals. I was also surprised to find recommendations to name functions phptemplate_* within theme-specific template.php files, where they could instead be prefixed with the theme’s name rather than ‘phptemplate’. PHP’s not fond of functions that share names within the same context, and it is best to give those functions the most specific name available to you in order to avoid errors.

Given the fact that only HTML and CSS are listed as pre-requisites I was a little surprised that the PHP code wasn’t introduced in a more focussed section. Given its simplicity it’s to be hoped that anyone intending to spend much time building drupal sites would be able to figure it out, but while time is spent picking apart example code little time is spent actually giving a conceptual introduction or, for that matter, on explaining how to install drupal in the first place. Surprisingly, space was given to explaining how cascades work in CSS, which you would think is a fundamental part of a knowledge of CSS and unnecessary in this context.

This is the second book in a row that Packt has sent me for review where it has seemed that reference material is scattered too freely amongst the tutorial-style chapters. Significant chunks of space are given over to listing off functions, the locations of stylesheets, and so on, which is useful information but breaks up the flow of the book unhelpfully. It’s surprising that that content wasn’t moved to an appendix or, as with their jQuery books, a separate volume. Sitting in the middle of the book it feels like unnecessary filler (just one or two examples would do, along with a reference to an appendix, other volume, or online source) and the space could helpfully be given to more detailed tutorial material. That coupled with poor print quality and light paper stock (both also an issue with that previous book) gives the book a lightweight feel and reinforce its weaknesses.

This book should get an HTML/CSS developer who’s not afraid to dip their toes into some PHP up to speed with customising a drupal site, and its worth considering if you’ve been mostly building static sites or customising wordpress and need a content management system with a wider range of features. Unfortunately it’s still fairly weak structurally, and you may well find yourself needing to combine it with quite a bit of online documentation to properly cover the topics under discussion.

Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of this book for review by the publisher. You can find it at packt publishing, amazon US, amazon UK and all sorts of other places.

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