A Complete Guide To Tumblr

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Think of Tumblr as micro-blogging on steroids (technically, it’s called “tumblelogging”). Whereas Twitter and similar services limit posts to 140 characters or less, Tumblr lets you post updates of any length, although it’s best suited to short-format posts. Tumblr bridges the gap between full-blown blog and micro-blog.

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Tumblr is also an option for designers and creative people, because it gives you complete control over the look of your tumblelog. It also offers great opportunities for theme designers, especially with the recent launch of premium themes (which range in price from $9 to $49). Read on for your complete guide to using and designing for Tumblr.

Why Use Tumblr?

Quite simply because Tumblr makes setting up a blog very easy. It also makes it very simple for you to follow other tumbleloggers on the website and to share their content. Tumblr tries to combine the best parts of blogging and micro-blogging in one. It handles longer-form and multimedia posts, like regular blogs, while encouraging more interaction between tumbleloggers, like micro-blogs.

Post Formats

The fact that Tumblr has built-in formats for a variety of content types makes it stand out from other blogging and micro-blogging platforms. There are templates for text, photos, videos, audio, quotes, links and chat transcripts. Most themes take advantage of the differences between these post types and implement special formatting for each one. You can also add plain text to most of these post types, and you can add images to your text posts. It’s a quite flexible system.

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Because of the unique post formats, Tumblr makes a perfect platform for vlogging and podcasting, as well as for photo blogging. For audio posts, you can even call in a post, requiring nothing more than a phone. You can also email in posts of all types (each type of post has a specific email format3).

Tumblr API

The Tumblr API has spawned plenty of third-party apps4 that let you do all sorts of things with Tumblr. More than a dozen iPhone apps can be used with Tumblr, and at least as many Web services. Desktop and mobile apps are available, as well as widgets and plug-ins that you can use on other websites. You can set up Tumblr to automatically post to your Twitter or Facebook account, too.

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For developers, the API6 opens a world of options for creating apps. The API itself is relatively straightforward and anyone with basic PHP and XML skills will have a short learning curve. While dozens of Tumblr apps are already out there, there’s still plenty of room for further expansion.

Other Unique Features

Like Twitter, Tumblr lets you follow other users and view their posts in your dashboard. Tumblr also gives you the option to reblog or “heart” (the equivalent to a “Like” on Facebook) posts from anyone, whether you follow them or not.

Following other users is simple: just click the “Follow” link in the upper-right corner of their tumblelog. That’s also where you’ll find the links to heart or reblog content.

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Blog Options

Tumblr gives you fairly complete control over how you blog. You can set up group blogs with multiple authors. You can also set up numerous blogs under a single account (each with its own custom options), though only one username is able to follow other tumblelogs. Tumblr also lets you keep private Tumblelogs that are password-protected, so you can share them with those you know or keep them completely personal. Just make sure not to post to your public tumblelog by accident!

Getting Started

Starting out with Tumblr is easy. Just sign up on the site, enter your email address and a password and the URL you want to use (something.tumblr.com). You’ll have the option to set up a custom domain name after you’ve signed up. Once your account is set up, you can start posting right away.

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Themes and Customization

Hundreds of themes are available for Tumblr, most of them for free. Take some time to go through the theme options when you sign up, either to find one for your tumblelog or to get ideas to create your own theme.

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One thing you may notice with Tumblr themes is that a lot of them have very narrow content areas. While wider themes are available, the vast majority are narrower than 800 pixels (and some even narrower than that).

Most Tumblr themes come with some customization options that don’t require any HTML and CSS knowledge (if you plan to create some public themes, you’ll probably want to include some customization options). There’s also an area to enter custom CSS that will override existing styles.

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You can customize the HTML in any theme, too. Click on the “Customize” link from your dashboard, and then click on “Theme” and “Custom HTML.” This is also how you would create a theme from scratch. You can link to an external style sheet, too (Tumblr has a static file uploader12 for uploading theme assets).

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Editing an existing theme is a great way to start designing for Tumblr. It also gives you complete control over how your theme looks and works without having to start from scratch.

The Bookmarklet

The Tumblr bookmarklet makes it easy to post content from anywhere on the Web. Just drag it to your bookmarks toolbar and use it when you find something to blog about. Depending on the page’s content, a window will pop up suggesting a particular content format for your post. You can change the post type right there or accept its suggestion.

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Most pages will default to the “Link” post format, but if you’re on Flickr, for example, it will default to the “Photo” format. Likewise, if you’re watching a YouTube video, it will default to the “Video” format.

Creating Custom Tumblr Themes

While Tumblr makes it easy to customize the HTML and CSS of almost any theme, you may want to start from scratch. If you’ve ever created a theme for another blogging platform or CMS, creating a Tumblr theme won’t be any more difficult. Even if you haven’t created a theme for another CMS, creating a Tumblr theme isn’t much more difficult than creating a standard HTML template.

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Basic Structure

Tumblr themes include the same basic parts as any website. There’s usually a header and main content area, as well as an optional sidebar and footer. Beyond that, Tumblr themes are broken down into blocks. Each block on your tumblelog contains some piece of data. For example, there are blocks for each of the post types (text, photo, audio, video, etc.), as well as blocks for things like your tumblelog’s description and “Previous” and “Next” page links.

The Tumblr loop has a huge number of variables to take advantage of. You’ll need to define blocks for each post type in order to display them properly in your theme. Beyond that, you choose what to include in your theme.

A complete list of Tumblr variables can be found on the Creating a Custom HTML Theme16 page on Tumblr’s website. The page also includes more information on creating Tumblr themes in general.

More on Tumblr Theme Variables

Variables allow you to do various custom things with your Tumblr themes. There are basic variables for things like the theme title, portrait URLs and favicons. There are unique variables for each of the post formats, too. Some formats (like text posts) have only a handful of variables, while others have over a dozen.

Creating Public Themes

With the addition of premium themes, many designers are becoming more interested in creating their own Tumblr themes. You might want to do a few things to a public theme that you might not bother with for a personal theme, though. One of these is creating some customization options that allow users to change things like font colors and which parts of a page to show and hide. Look around at what other themes allow to be customized, and look at the variables that Tumblr uses.

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Public themes do have a few requirements that may not apply to personal themes. These are:

  • All the theme’s assets have to be hosted on Tumblr.
  • Third-party widgets have to be commented out. This means that you can include the code and instructions on how to enable it, but it must be disabled by default.
  • Your theme must support all of the different post types: text, photo, quote, link, chat, audio and video.
  • It must support the standard tags (check the variables list to see what they are).
  • It must be good-looking and fully functional. Tumblr themes are vetted for quality; unattractive ones won’t make the cut.

At the moment, when you submit a theme to Tumblr, it’s free by default. To be able to sell premium themes through the Tumblr directory, you’ll either need to ask or be invited. Overall, the premium themes program is pretty secretive.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t sell premium Tumblr themes elsewhere. Theme Forest has a number of Tumblr themes for sale. Other theme developers sell them directly through their own websites. Both are options if you want to get into the premium theme market.

Remember to include credit and a link in the footer of your theme, so that visitors can find your other themes and download them. Many users will leave this credit and link as is, giving you potential traffic for your blog.

Tumblr-Specific Memes

You may want to consider joining in on some Tumblr-specific trends, events and memes out there.

Tumblr Tuesdays and Recommended Blogs

Think of Tumblr Tuesdays as sort of like Twitter’s #FollowFriday hash tag. Tumblr has a built-in recommendation engine that feeds the directory listings of blogs that are recommended enough as well as the recommended tumblelogs that show up in your dashboard’s sidebar.

Bacon

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I suspect that Tumblr has a higher proportion of bacon-related blogs than on any other blogging or micro-blogging service out there. Just a quick search turns up at least half a dozen tumblelogs focused exclusively on bacon.

Unfollow Friday

Playing on Twitter’s #FollowFriday hash tag, Unfollow Friday19 encourages you to post annoying or disgusting things to your tumblelog in an effort to get people to unfollow you. The goal is to see how many people you can get to stop following you.

Conclusion

Whether you’re looking for a quick and easy platform to post short-format or multimedia posts or you’re interested in developing custom Tumblr themes to give away or sell, this guide should get you on your way. If you have additional resources or tips to share, please do so in the comments below!

Further Resources

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Footnotes

  1. 1 http://tumblr.com
  2. 2 http://tumblr.com
  3. 3 http://www.tumblr.com/docs/en/email_publishing
  4. 4 http://www.tumblr.com/docs/en/apps
  5. 5 http://tumblr.com/docs/en/apps
  6. 6 http://www.tumblr.com/docs/en/api
  7. 7 http://tumblr.com
  8. 8 http://tumblr.com
  9. 9 http://www.tumblr.com/themes/
  10. 10 http://tumblr.com
  11. 11 http://tumblr.com
  12. 12 http://www.tumblr.com/themes/upload_static_file
  13. 13 http://tumblr.com
  14. 14 http://www.tumblr.com/goodies
  15. 15 http://www.tumblr.com/docs/en/custom_themes
  16. 16 http://www.tumblr.com/docs/en/custom_themes
  17. 17 http://www.tumblr.com/themes/new
  18. 18 http://baconbaconbacon.tumblr.com
  19. 19 http://tumblepedia.com/unfollow-friday
  20. 20 http://speckyboy.com/2009/03/23/34-amazing-tumblr-themes-twitter-could-never-look-this-good/
  21. 21 http://buildinternet.com/2010/04/things-to-know-about-custom-tumblr-theme-design/
  22. 22 http://line25.com/articles/getting-started-with-tumblr-and-custom-theme-design
  23. 23 http://matthewbuchanan.name/post/37355563/theming-tumblr

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Cameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with over 6 years of experience. She writes for a number of blogs, including her own, Cameron Chapman On Writing. She’s also the author of The Smashing Idea Book: From Inspiration to Application.

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  1. 1

    Is there any way of integrating Tumblr on a page of my personal website? I appreciate any suggestions that will help me.

    Thanks

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  2. 52

    I just don’t get how people keep saying that tumblr is amazingly easy and has a simple to use customization. When I say customization, I speaking more about the personalization side. Although I’m a designer and can make changes to the HTML for editing purposes, or creating my own themes, what about people without these seemingly “basic” skills? Let us say, for instance, my mother wanted to start a blog; she cannot figure out how to make even the littlest changes that she wants. It is not simple at all to personalize your tumblr pages, without having some know-how. For example, adding a background image, change the header, or make her text blue instead of red, without importing a theme or knowing something about design and code. For that, she needs either a very (more like extremely) customizable theme, create her own theme, or edit the html code. All of those are pretty much beyond her ability, and therefore keeps her – or any other amateur – from being able to use tumblr for simple blogging purposes.
    That doesn’t sound like a very useful and easy blogging service for the average (or below average) user to me. There is a difference between having complete control, and being exceedingly simple; one means the ability to change it is there if you know how, the other allows you to select options and it does the rest for you.

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  3. 103

    Nice article on the pros of the platform, Cameron. I recently switched my website over to Tumblr and have been very happy with the move. Very sleek. Very simple. Adding a new piece to my site couldn’t be easier. Though there are some tricks to better the SEO-aspect of Tumblr, I would like to see them improve this feature to compete with, say, WordPress. At least make custom excerpts available up front.

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  4. 154

    If I don’t know yet about tumblr, I will surely get the idea of tumblr inside and out by reading your post. I like tumblr how feed is imported and post to my facebook and twitter. I makes me save time to share my new blog post.

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  5. 205

    Im trying to work out how to manage multiple authors. Making a wedding tumblr and asking wedding guests to contribute their msgs and photos from the day. I know I have to get them to sign up to tumblr but am unable to work out how they can contribute, help?

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  6. 256

    when you click my ask button it says the url can not be found.. it might not be tumblr’s fault, it might just be the theme.. but i really want questions & i’ve been getting complaints.. PLEASE help me.

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  7. 307

    it could be because you disabled the ask box in option. go to comunity and check the box that says ‘let people message you’

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  8. 358

    I live in a foreign country. I changed my language to English, but it’s still all another language? How do i help that..

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  9. 409

    When I make a tumblr, theres a box (along with Email and Password) that says URL. WHAT DO I PUT THERE?!?!?

    -1
  10. 460

    I just joined Tumblr with the intention to blog. I am not a serious blogger, but I have a lot to say in the humor department and wanted to share the little bit of talent I believe I possess. Although, the content of my posts will not be consired as serious material by the tone and the topics of choice (women issues, family problems, relationship stories, etc.), I still want to expose my writing. Close friends find it very entertaining and wanted to see what the world thought of it! What other sites do you recommend that would allow me to receive the kind of exposure I am looking for and feedback for improvement?

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  11. 511

    If i wanna sorta “tag” someone in the post who also has a tumblr account so she can see what I wrote, how do i do it? help pleassssse!

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  12. 562

    I am wondering too… any ideas??

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  13. 613

    Why is it so difficult to center a picture in a post?

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  14. 664

    Hello, does anyone know how to style individual pages so that they display extra information on the title and description tag? I wanted to append the image description on my photo pages to the title meta tag itself.

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  15. 715

    Francisco del Corral

    November 8, 2011 6:48 pm

    You must update this post, tumblr is different right know…

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  16. 766

    I’d hate to have you represent my firm, Some Dude1. People like you complain about the stifling of free speech, when you clearly don’t believe in it – or dissent, that is. Free speech is only good if it’s in your favor. There’s a big push in the design and UX community to understand and actually “communicate” well with others – especially clients, prospects and team members. You certainly can’t be trusted around anyone. But your anonymity relieves you of any guilt or consequences. Good going.

    Oh, and real policing is the act of deleting or banning posters (also appropriate at times, provided it’s from the author of the site or forum), not simply objecting to them.

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  17. 817

    Pete – adults have different values, some more liberal and some more conservative; it doesn’t mean one is wrong or right, but what it DOES mean is that you risk the alienation of many good prospects with titles like this. Many ACTUAL adults consider the title less than adult-like. They’re more aware of the broad picture, and who they’re eliminating from their demo. But then, that’s a part of appealing to your target audience. My years in both marketing and webdev have shown this. If you want broad appeal, knock off the shock crap and present the content with substance. If you want to focus on a much smaller demo, while strongly isolating the rest, go ahead, knock yourself out with the “hilarity.”

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  18. 868

    Can someone PLEASE help me ? All of the sudden a security warning came up on my tumblr. it refuses to go away. it says i have to reset my password. i sent the link to my email that goes along with my account then when i got the email and clicked on the link it said the link was invalid i no longer have access to my tumblr can someone help me ? I have a feeling it might be from downloading Missing-E yesterday ,, i un-installed after an hour or so. but if you know what i can do email me at miaxx11 @ hotmail. com PLEASEEE

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  19. 919

    If i want to ask something on someones blog and it says “Sorry,but please don’t include links in questions”
    What does it mean and what do i do?

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  20. 970

    Same happened to me, so I don’t know what to do….try to email them and explain what happened to your tumblr
    good luck :) x

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  21. 1021

    when i tryed sending a question to someone it said sorry,but please dont include links in this question, what does it mean?

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  22. 1072

    We’ve created a free tool that makes it easy to create multi-image “collection posts” on tumblr.

    You can see examples of what I mean by a collection post on my tumblr at http://ratelycollections.tumblr.com.

    You can read about how to create collection posts in this fun little blog post:

    http://blog.rately.com/post/29221319898/create-cool-collection-posts-tumblr

    Oh, and feel free to follow us on Tumblr.

    -1
  23. 1123

    Too late for your wedding I imagine, and I’m not very experienced with Tumblr, but it seems like you could create a Tumblr with a password and give everyone the password so they can post to the wedding tumblr. I think that’s a great idea by the way. Maybe you could ask wedding guests who are more computer literate to help those who would never get on to post on their own so the tumblr is more representative and a better tribute to the wedding.

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  24. 1174

    Is there any way to see a list of tumblrs? I know I can use search, but I’d like to see a list of tumblr names and go to ones whose names look interesting. Thanks.

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  25. 1225

    ” If you want broad appeal, knock off the shock crap and present the content with substance.”

    Thank you, thank you! As an adult, I am sick of hearing that particular 4 letter word being spread around like ketchup. Being able to curse does not make somebody a grownup (although there are people who seem to think that it does).

    1

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