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Another confusion I faced while setting up this blog is regarding setting Jekyll themes for GitHub Pages. If you are setting up a blog with Jekyll, it is likely that you will want to set a theme to customise the look and feel, and also to use features implemented by authors of Jekyll themes.

There are 3 main methods for setting Jekyll themes on GitHub Pages.

  • Gem-based themes
  • Remote themes
  • Regular themes

I will go through each of the 3 methods, how to set them up, and what the pros and cons are of each method. For GitHub Pages, the documentation will be the relevant reference for this topic.

Gem-based Themes

This is the default method used for new Jekyll projects. When you initialise a new Jekyll project with jekyll new, you will notice that the _config.yml is set up with theme: minima. Minima is a minimalistic Jekyll theme that is installed together with Jekyll.

This method requires that you make configuration changes at 2 locations: Gemfile and _config.yml.

The following specifies and installs the gem for the theme.

# Gemfile
gem "minimal-mistakes-jekyll"

This activates the theme in Jekyll.

# _config.yml
theme: minimal-mistakes-jekyll

Pros

  • Simple to set up
  • Sufficient for simple needs, such as project documentation
  • Theme development and maintenance managed by theme author

Cons

  • Only themes with published gems can be configured with this method
  • Limited theme customisation
  • For GitHub Pages, only limited themes are available with this method

The final point is the severe limitation of using gem-based theme configuration. According to the documentation, there are only 15 themes available for GitHub Pages. If you are using GitHub Pages, you will not be able to use any other gem-based theme by adding it into the Gemfile. The included themes are as follows.

  • minima
  • jekyll-swiss
  • jekyll-theme-primer
  • jekyll-theme-architect
  • jekyll-theme-cayman
  • jekyll-theme-dinky
  • jekyll-theme-hacker
  • jekyll-theme-leap-day
  • jekyll-theme-merlot
  • jekyll-theme-midnight
  • jekyll-theme-minimal
  • jekyll-theme-modernist
  • jekyll-theme-slate
  • jekyll-theme-tactile
  • jekyll-theme-time-machine

These themes are available in the “Theme Chooser” under “GitHub Pages” in the repo settings. When you select a theme using this method, GitHub automatically creates a _config.yml file and set the theme field.

Most of these themes are not developed to be used for blogging purposes. They lack functionality to generate posts and handle posts pagination. Out of the themes in this list, Minima is probably the most feature complete as it is the default theme, with development supported by Jekyll directly. However, your GitHub Pages website will look like many out there.

Remote Themes

This method requires the Jekyll remote theme plugin. This plugin is included with GitHub Pages and installed together with github-pages gem. (Please read my previous post to understand how this gem works.)

With the Jekyll remote theme plugin installed (either individually or with github-pages gem), set up the remote theme configuration in the _config.yml file.

# _config.yml
remote_theme: minimal-mistakes

Pros

  • Simple to set up
  • Many themes are available on GitHub
  • Theme development and maintenance managed by theme author

Cons

  • Long build time due to downloading of theme files on build
  • Customisability depends on theme
  • Only work for themes published on GitHub

In my opinion, the remote theme method offers the best balance of selection, customisability and complexity. I am using this method to use the Minimal Mistakes theme. The remote theme method is applicable to any theme that is hosted on GitHub, this means a large number of themes are available, even it is not a gem. However, do take note that pay attention to whether themes are still being maintained or meant to be used this way.

Regular Themes

The regular theme method is the most raw and complex method. When you fork the repo of a Jekyll theme to start your GitHub Pages, you are inadvertently using this method.

To better understand how this method works, it is a good idea to go through the Jekyll documentation. In essence, you are required to set up the following 4 folders and their associated content. These set the theme page layouts, appearance and functionality.

  • /_includes: HTML components used in page layouts
  • /_layouts: HTML page layouts
  • /_sass: SASS files for page styling with CSS
  • /assets: other static assets for the theme

Pros

  • Allows for any customisation you want
  • Can be easily started by cloing a GitHub repo of a Jekyll theme
  • No external dependency

Cons

  • Requires understanding of theme authoring
  • Customisation requires knowledge of static website development with HTML, CSS, JS, Liquid and Jekyll

I do not recommend using the regular theme method to set up theme for your Jekyll website, unless you know what you are doing. Unfortunately, many theme authors lazily suggest to start using the theme by cloning the GitHub repo. The primary problem with this method is that any updates to the theme need to be merged into the user repo manually by the user. This gets complicated really quickly, especially if you have made customisation to the theme files. Another issue is that the user Jekyll project may be polluted by many theme files that is not required and clean up is needed. However, this can only be done only when the user is somewhat familiar with Jekyll theme authoring.

While exploring theme configuration, I was initially attracted to author my own theme to get my unique look and feel. However, as I went deeper into the rabbit hole, I discovered that it gets very complicated really quickly. Hence, this is really not a good idea unless you are a proficient website developer familiar with HTML, CSS and JS.

Conclusion

There are 3 methods to set up Jekyll themes.

  • Gem-based theme
    • Sufficient for simple needs such as project documentation
  • Remote theme
    • Recommended for blogging with Jekyll
    • Best balance between selection, customisation and complexity
  • Regular theme
    • Not recommended, unless familiar with Jekyll site development

I hope I have helped the reader better understand the underlying workings of setting up Jekyll themes. This shall conclude the sharing of my journey into setting up my blog with Jekyll on GitHub Pages.

Thank you for reading!

My other post on Jekyll and GitHub Pages.

References

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