It's no secret that a well designed website attracts more traffic and more business; indeed every website has a designer of some type and that designer is critical in the success of the website making design a highly competitive field. So why is that so many sites choose to stick with a stock design for their forum? The answer is simple, forum skins are often hard to manipulate for your average web designer and the stock layout of virtually all major forum software already looks good enough. There are many other compelling factors to use a default skin with only slight alterations; many webmasters feel that adding a custom header and changing around a few colors makes their forum unique enough to have a brand. Many other webmasters feel that design is not as important as promotion or member interaction but this is simply not the case.
The Mistake -- False Assumptions
The first mistake in forum skinning is assuming that the skin doesn't matter, that users are use to default styles and that colors or headers are enough. It is true that a good skin is rarely a major deviation from the normal style; indeed a good skin incorporates the traditional functionality of the forum software, using familiar looking icons and text in order to avoid any sort of learning curve. Usability experts and forum owners all want users to understand their forum and their system, so they are often hesitant to change things around, but what they are failing to realize is that you can change a great deal of a site without changing any of functionality. What matters in forum styling is defining a forum as its own, because odds are there are already a dozen or more forums doing the exact same thing.
The Value -- Branding, branding, branding!
As forum websites try to stick their heads out from the crowd of competition, the value of skinning becomes more apparent. A new forum or even an established one is always trying to grow and thus it is vital to retain users. However, users unlike technically savvy webmasters, don't often remember urls or differentiate one site from the next. For a webmaster their site may have ten times the users or features of another site, but if a user is able to confuse their site with that other site, then all the bells and whistles in the world aren't going to make a bit of difference. Forum skins serve a very simple purpose, to create a brand and sell a site and absolutely nothing else can do that.
How To - A Nautical Example
In order to be successful a forum skin does not need to be elaborate or flashy, although that certainly has been proven to work for many sites. A good skin encompasses the feel of a website with some embodiment of the particular niche. A nautical forum for example would might a strong logo, perhaps with a lighthouse, but instead of stopping there the rest of the skin would hold this theme. Contrasting levels of light and dark blue along with grey columns would be ideal for the forums color scheme, while the new and old icons might also incorporate a search light on or off and user titles may also fit with nautical terms. In this example the branding is not particularly strong yet it is subtly evident to anyone visiting the site.
"The devil is in the details"
The mere presence of well presented or custom icons is often overlooked as ScubaBoard.com discovered during their vb3 migration. For several years ScubaBoard operated with what one would now call a terrible layout, but the presence of a few red and blue dive flags somehow stuck with the users. After the upgrade, when the new skin came into place they complained. This of course was astonishing simply because the new skin was much more user friendly and much better fitted to the site, so what could the problem be? After the icons were added back users began to complement the style, re-enforcing the true value of something as simple as an icon. Of course a skin can go far beyond subtle combining a completely new set of templates with only a hint of the original look, and this too this works as well provided that the functionality remains intact and visible.
End Results -- Valuation
A skin can be as simple or as advanced as the site owner wants it to be and in most cases it will be successful, as it is memorable, usable and well related to the topic. For forums looking to expand, especially those forums which are brand new, it is important to realize that the investment of time or money into a custom skin may be far more important than the investment of the same amount of time or money into any other portion of the forum. Indeed it is most important that smaller sites become distinct simply because they are so low on the chain as to be quickly forgotten and replaced with another site. Whether a webmasters decides to build their own skin or pay for someone else to do it or simply buy a premade skin, there is always an immense value in the unique look and feel it will add to the site for the users already there and those who will come in the future and the return is well worth the investment.
* ScubaBoard skin designed by http://vbdesign.co.uk