Hacking an Elgg 1.0 Theme | openedweb.com


Now that Elgg 1.0 is released, administrators may want to distinguish their site for all the other installations. As of this writing, there are no Elgg1.0 themes available nor has the Elgg Documentation Wiki yet been updated with instructions on theme development. There are some quick and easy ways to significantly change the appearance of your site.

The first thing you need to do is grab your ftp client and access yourelggdirectory/views/default/css.php and open it in your text editor. This is the heart of the appearance of your Elgg site. Now that you are looking at the code, it’s time to start hacking. Make sure you are working on a copy of css.php. If you mess things up, you can always upload your backup and restore the original theme.

Where do you start? First of all, the file is well commented by the elgg developers. There are also some cool tools can be a lot of help. One great free tool is a Firefox Plugin called Web Developer. Once you install Web Developer you will see a new tool bar on your browser.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Look for the CSS button, click it and select “View Style Information.”


Now, as you mouse over elements of the page, Web Developer will display the CSS style information for that element, giving you a pretty good idea where to alter the code to change its appearance.


Note the element is outlined in red above and the styles impacting it displayed directly below the tool bar. A quick peak at the code under those divisions should quickly reveal which needs to be edited.

Some elements such as the background are based upon graphics:

body {
margin:0 auto;
background: #4690d6;
font: 80%/1.4 "Lucida Grande", Verdana, sans-serif;
color: #333333;
background: url(<?php echo $vars['url']; ?>_graphics/page_back_linen.gif) repeat left 1px;

In that case you have the option of finding another graphic, or in some cases simply replacing it with a color.

Another handy option is to use your find/replace command to change colors en masse. This css file makes it easy because around line 70, you will find:

70 /* ***************************************
72 *************************************** */
74 /* elgg open source blue #4690d6 */
75 /* elgg open source dark blue #0054a7 */
76 /* elgg open source light yellow #FDFFC3 */

These are color elements that repeat many times in the file. By choosing a replacement color appropriate for each of the three is a quick and easy way to make changes to the theme.

Once you have made your changes, you can overwrite the css.php file to see the results, but a better approach is to use the override system. Simply save the file as css.css and upload it to yourelggdirectory/_css. This way, you still have the default available to fall back on if things did not work out as expected. Please refer to this post on installing themes as plugins.

You may want to change a few elements at a time then upload and view results. There are also some really handy css editors out that give real time feedback. CSSEdit for the Mac makes this process even easier! I’m sure there is something similar on other platforms.

Another thing that you may want to change is the text within Spotlight at the bottom of pages. One option is to write plugins to populate Spotlight, but that is beyond the scope of this post. The other way to edit it is to go to yourelggdirectory/views/default/spotlight/default.php. The commenting makes it clear where to edit.

While this in all probability does not represent the full procedure for developing an Elgg theme, this information will help change the look of your installation. You can do so with very little knowledge of CSS, but of course, the more you know, the easier it will be to make more significant changes.

Georg Westphalen

a former physician specializing in creative concepts, outrageous comics, hilarious character designs and urban philosophy.