Customizing Your Forum

Now that you have installed phpBB and gained some experience with the Administration Control Panel, you are ready to begin altering some more advanced aspects of the forum's appearance and features. Changing these areas of phpBB will be essential for giving your forum a unique identity that stands out among
online forums. The appearance of a forum is mainly controlled by phpBB's styling system, which manages the colors, images, and visual layout of the forum. Features can be added, removed, or altered by installing modification scripts downloaded from phpBB-related websites.

By the end of this chapter, you will have learned about:

  • The basics of a phpBB 2.0 style
  • Correct methods of editing phpBB files
  • How to add and remove styles
  • Common style installation problems
  • Ways to customize a style
  • The benefits of creating and altering styles
  • Methods of changing forum images
  • How to add new forum features

phpBB Styles

If you look at several different phpBB forums, you may notice several differences in each forum. They may use different colors and images, display features in a different order, or omit some features entirely. This multitude of effects can be accomplished by using different phpBB styles. A phpBB style is the appearance of a forum, created by a combination of a layout, colors, and images. When you installed phpBB, the default style, called subSilver, was also installed. subSilver is the most commonly used style on phpBB forums, but there are well over two hundred different styles that have been publicly released. It is common for forums to have multiple styles available for user selection.

When dealing with phpBB, you will sometimes see the terms style, theme, and template used interchangeably. In this chapter, themes and templates are defined as two smaller aspects of the overall style to reduce confusion. This is the way the terms are used most often in phpBB's code and Administration Control Panel. Even the latter sometimes uses theme in place of style, however.

Structure of a Style

In order to effectively customize a style, you must first understand the parts that compose the design of that style. Styles, like houses, are built from smaller components that work together to create a frame. That frame, like the walls of the house, provides a structure for displaying the internal contents of a forum. These frames can be very complex creations so let us look at how the basic pieces are put together and stored, before we get into the actual customization of a style.

Style Elements

Styles are composed of three primary style elements, or smaller portions that work together to create the overall visual appearance of the style. These are the template, theme, and image set elements. Each style is self-contained and includes all the style elements needed to operate correctly.

The first and most important part of a style is the template element. The template element is a set of text files containing the entire markup that is used to generate the visual layout of a forum. The markup consists mainly of a markup language such as Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and phpBB's own special template features, but can also include client-side scripting languages such as JavaScript. Template files are used to arrange most of the information displayed by your forum. You can identify template files by looking at the name of a file; all template files have names ending with tpl. Some examples are index_body.tpl, viewtopic_body.tpl, and message_body.tpl. Although this is rare, it is possible for multiple styles to use one set of template files with different themes and/or image sets.

The theme element of a forum style is a grouping of formatting rules used to define the visual decoration of a forum. The most common uses of the theme are specifying the font face, colors, background colors, and borders of page elements. Theme elements can be difficult to locate because they can be stored in three different locations. Most styles store theme data in one or more Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) files, such as subSilver.css and formIE.css. The name of the CSS files will vary with each forum style, but many times, there will be at least one CSS file named after the forum style. Some styles will place their CSS formatting rules in the overall_header.tpl template file instead of a separate CSS file. Others may use a combination of the overall_header.tpl technique and database storage of some values. The subSilver style uses the combination method, but also includes a CSS file that can be used after a manual change.

An image set element includes all the images that are part of a style. Some examples are the folder images, voting result bar graphics, and language-specific buttons such as "Reply" and "New Topic." There are also images that may be used mainly for decorative purposes, such as background or header images. Decorative images are sometimes considered part of the theme, instead of the image set.

In addition to the template files already discussed, the template element can also contain two special configuration files related to the theme and image set elements. The theme configuration file, theme_info.cfg, is used for saving theme database data associated with a template. The saved data can then be imported into another forum's database later. For the most part, you will only rarely need to edit this file. It is usually automatically generated or provided as needed. The second configuration file holds template configuration data. In most cases, that will merely be a list of graphic files in the image set of a style. These template configuration files have a name based on their matching template, such as subSilver.cfg.

Style Storage

Details of all of the styles available on a forum are stored in the forum's SQL database. The database only holds a list of installed styles, the name of an associated template element for each style, and some limited theme data. No image set data is stored in your database.

In most cases, a templates directory will contain two other subdirectories: admin and images. The admin subdirectory will contain template files used to display the Administration Control Panel. The images subdirectory will hold the image set used in the style, and may have language-named subdirectories, such as lang_english or lang_dutch, for images that display typed text in different languages. Some more advanced styles may include directories other than admin and images.

Editing phpBB Files

Throughout this chapter, you will be learning about and using a new skill that will be very useful to you as the administrator of a phpBB forum. You have already learned about some of the powerful configurations and features available through the Administration Control Panel, but there are many more that are not found there. These features can only be accessed (or in some cases, added) by editing phpBB's files yourself.

You must be careful to follow proper procedures when altering the files because phpBB is a delicate and complicated set of scripts. Doing so can save you a lot of headaches later, as many have learned first hand.

You will be reminded of these procedures at several later points in the book. Try to follow them before manually editing any files, even if you are not reminded. This cannot be stressed enough, because these procedures can save you a lot of time when dealing with problems.

Before editing any file, the most important thing you should do is create a backup of that file. This simply means creating a copy of the file in its current condition. If you encounter problems due to your editing later, you can replace the edited file with the backup. That will effectively revert your forum to the pre-edited state of the file. At some point in your phpBB experience, you will definitely need to use a backup of a file. Everyone makes mistakes at some point, and it is nothing to be ashamed about. At other times, things simply do not work. Regardless of the cause, very few mistakes can be permanently fatal to a phpBB forum if you make backups before doing anything.

When you do edit a phpBB file, it is important to use the correct type of program. phpBB uses three types of files: graphics, text files containing program code, and text files containing display code. Graphics are standard image files you would see on any website and should be edited in programs such as Jasc Paint Shop Pro, Adobe Photoshop, or any other program capable of handling them. The text files, however, are special. Making a mistake in a graphic file will not damage your forum, but making one in a display code file or program code can easily cripple your forum.

Microsoft Notepad, perhaps the most commonly used text editor of the Microsoft Windows operating system, cannot understand the Unix format fully. It displays all the contents of a Unix text file on one long line, so Notepad is not the best choice for phpBB administrators. WordPad editor, also included with Microsoft Windows, is able to read Unix files without any problems. Most dedicated phpBB coders use more advanced text-editing programs with special features related to the PHP programming language. Some popular examples are EditPlus, TextPad, and PHPEdit, but there are many more available. You should, however, not need anything more complex than WordPad for the examples here.

The display code files are the .tpl files of the template element and the .css files of the theme element we learned about earlier. Like the program code files, these are plain text files saved in a Unix text file format. WordPad will again be our choice for editing these files for the examples in this chapter. There are special HTML editing programs, such as Dreamweaver MX, that can be used to edit template files. Those programs tend to cause as many problems as they solve, so you may want to avoid them for now unless you are very familiar with the program you choose.

Finally, there is one more note about editing both program and display code files. When saving these files, you need to make certain to save them in the proper file format. These are supposed to be plain text files, so you must save them as that. To save an edited phpBB file in WordPad, just click the Save toolbar icon or select Save from the File menu. WordPad should automatically save the file correctly. If you must select Save As, make certain to choose Text Document in the Saves as type selection list.

Microsoft WordPad may be able to read Unix file formats, but it does not save files in that format. Instead, it saves files in a personal computer (PC) format.

Installing a New Style

One of the easiest ways to customize the appearance of your forum is to download and install a new phpBB style. Hundreds of different styles have been created based on topics like color schemes, popular movies, television shows, hobbies, sports, etc. The majority of these styles are free to download and use, although there are also some commercial styles and style designers available. Some websites that offer style downloads also provide demonstration forums in which you can preview any of the styles without downloading anything. Two of the best websites for downloading phpBB styles are:

Remember, some online communities use the terms template or theme when referring to a complete style, rather than names of style elements. phpBBHacks.com tends to use template in this manner.

Be certain to select a style that is compatible with the version of phpBB that you are using. The two sites above will list the compatible phpBB versions for each style, but other sites may not. Also keep in mind that some other sites carry styles for special ported versions of phpBB that are used with content management systems like PHP-Nuke. Those styles will not be compatible with an original flavor phpBB forum and vice versa.

Once you have selected and downloaded a new style, you will need to install the style to your forum. The installation is not a hard process if everything is prepared properly.

You will however find it a bit daunting if the process or the creation of the style has been handled incorrectly.

Most downloads will come in a ZIP file format. Before you can install a downloaded style, you need to decompress the ZIP file. There are various software programs you can use to accomplish this task. If you downloaded phpBB in a ZIP file, you are most probably already familiar with decompressing a file. Even if you are not, there are many decompression software programs you can download. Some of the more famous names include WinZip, WinAce, and WinRAR. Some, like ZipGenius (http://www.zipgenius.it/) or XAce, are free. WinZip has a Wizard mode that is very easy to use, so we will not look at decompression in great detail here.

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