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by Michael P. Hill January 20, 2016

Quality Shopify theme developers offer ongoing theme updates that not only add new features but also correct bugs or make adjustments for changes in Web technology, which is a great way to ensure your store stays fresh and up to date, but can also cause substantial headaches if you have customized your theme by altering any of the theme files directly.

When upgrading your theme from one version to another, you will most likely lose all of the following:

  • Any customizations made to Liquid files: This generally includes any modifications made by third-party apps, such as wish list, pre-order or meta fields apps.
  • Any customizations made to CSS files: This includes any changes to colors, fonts, design or layout made by adding custom styles using CSS.
  • Individual theme settings and preferences: This includes settings such as button colors, font sizes, social media links, display options, etc.

You can, however, still customize your theme and make upgrading easier by following the tips in a previous blog post on this topic or this support article. The most valuable tool when upgrading a customized Shopify theme is a complete and comprehensive log of all changes and customizations so that they can recreated.

The following parts of your store should be safe, though this may vary slightly based on your store settings and third party apps:

  • Products, variants and pricing
  • Shipping, payment and tax options and configuration
  • The content of pages and blog posts
  • Collections and navigation menus
  • Account settings
  • Language files and customizations

However, it’s worth noting again that any custom code snippets or file assets will need to be manually copied over and then re-incorporated into the theme.

When you look at these lists, it’s pretty alarming to consider how much work goes into upgrading a theme that’s been customized. To save yourself a substantial amount of work and frustration, there are some key questions you should ask yourself before opting to tweak your theme files directly

Is a theme customization necessary?

If you’re considering adding a feature, be sure to carefully consider the merits of adding it. Not only does adding a customization require an investment in custom code and testing, but it will also hinder, as outlined above, the ability to upgrade your theme in the future.

Adding customization through a third party will also likely make you dependent on that developer every time you want to update the theme in the future. Many developers are hesitant to work with other developers’ code or, if they are willing to, may charge higher rates due to the time it takes to review and understand the code.

When considering the financial impacts of customizations on your business, it’s important to factor in the cost of upgrading your custom features along with a theme upgrade, which could include re-engaging any third party developers you’ve worked with in the past.

Selective updating

You may also consider only applying selected theme updates to your store. For example, many Shopify theme developers will release smaller scale updates that correct minor bugs and issues more frequently than larger scale updates which add more features or correct major flaws.

In general, most Shopify theme developers will include all of the past updates and corrections in all future versions of a theme, so you should be safe to skip a few versions of a theme and only upgrade once in awhile, which can save some time and money.

That said, there’s always the possibility that, by sitting out a few rounds of updates, you’ll find yourself in a situation where so many bug fixesand new features have been added that, when you do decide to update, the upgrade is overwhelming.

One customization, many issues

Just like with adding new features, there are many layers to consider when implementing a customization. For example, not only do you have to consider design aspects such as the colors, fonts and layout but you’ll also need to plan for how each of these layouts will look on various devices. Each of these could then, in turn, require responsive CSS coding.

Unfortunately, many customizations also require updates to multiple theme files. For example, a customization involving how a product is named will likely require updates to the collection template, product template, cart template and possibly more. All of these customizations, in turn, may need custom CSS and Liquid code written plus any modifications for responsive views and exceptions.

As you can see, it’s easy for a simple customization to quickly steamroll into a plethora of changes that can quickly become an extensive checklist of manual updates to be done each time you update the theme.

Consider easier customizations

In general, CSS updates, which mainly include fonts, type size, colors and general layout properties are much simpler to maintain from one version of a Shopify theme to another, especially if all of the custom CSS is confined to one section of the master CSS file or a separate custom stylesheet is used. A quality theme will maintain the class and ID names used for CSS selectors from version to version, which can further simplify this type of customization.

On the other hand, updates that involve moving blocks of content, adding widgets, changing layouts, adding special custom text and other advanced features, often require modifying Liquid files, which means those code updates can’t be neatly packaged into a single, easy to upgrade location.

So do think twice before customizing your theme files directly, but if you do, then be sure to keep an ongoing record of any changes you make; you will thank yourself later if and when you do a theme upgrade!

Michael P. Hill
Michael P. Hill

Michael P. Hill is a Shopify, Shopify theme, content marketing, digital marketing and product management expert based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelphill or connect on LinkedIn.

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