The Ultimate WordPress Backend Complete Customization Tutorial

The Ultimate WordPress Backend Complete Customization Tutorial

There’s a lot that goes into developing WordPress websites from the ground up, which is why I hope you’ve found the WordPress startup guide helpful. Having one cohesive guide that walks you through the process step-by-step can be an invaluable tool when you’re first starting work as a WordPress developer.

Once you’ve mastered the WordPress website setup process, be sure to tackle the SEO tutorial next. This will teach you all the ways in which you should optimize a website for search, whether they be more obvious tasks like keyword optimization or less obvious ones like page speed enhancements.

When that’s under your belt and you know how to make a truly fine-tuned WordPress site, it’s time to start looking at ways in which you can use your clients’ WordPress installations to support your business goals. If you’re not sure what I’m referring to, this WordPress backend tutorial is for you.

In this article, we’re going to see how you can turn the backend of WordPress into a lean, mean content management machine for your clients… as well as a promotional tool for your WordPress business. If you’re serious about building and eventually expanding your WordPress development services, then you definitely need to learn how to do this.

Keep reading, or jump ahead to any section with these links:

Alright, let’s get to it!

Clever Customization

When all is said and done and you’ve completed development on a new WordPress website, you’re left with a dashboard that looks something like this:

WordPress default dashboard
The WordPress default dashboard.

The WordPress interface is inherently well-designed and intuitive, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with leaving it in its natural state. However, once you start adding premium themes and installing a bunch of plugins to optimize your site’s performance and security, the menus and dashboard can get a little cramped. If you want to deliver a truly premium service to your clients, you should think about customizing the WordPress backend.

Why would you want to do this? Well, there are a number of reasons actually.

  1. For one, a cleaned-up backend can keep clients from unintentionally doing harm to their websites.
  2. By branding the backend with the client’s logo and color scheme, and creating a more refined space for them to work in, you’ll turn WordPress into a more welcoming environment. And the less threatening WordPress is, the more your clients will use it to keep their sites updated!
  3. You can provide ongoing support to clients even if you’re not actively working on their site. Your clients will appreciate you having the foresight to leave behind support material, and helpful tips, as well as your contact information.

Sounds pretty great, right? Let’s jump right in and review how you can make this happen. Everything can be done with a single plugin and maybe an hour of dedicated time to get your WordPress backend in tip-top shape.

1. Install a Branding Plugin

The customizations we’re about to cover can be executed by using a WordPress plugin. So, if you’re nervous about having to code these changes into the backend of the site, don’t worry.

There is an assortment of backend customization plugins available on the WordPress repository, but to start, I would suggest you install WPMU DEV’s Ultimate Branding plugin, Branda. This is going to give you the biggest bang for your buck, in terms of how much customization you can do with a single plugin. And… you can now use Branda for FREE! Yes, you heard that right… f-r-e-e! Get it here.

Branda banner
Branda Plugin Banner

Once the plugin is installed and activated, we’ll enable all the available modules.

From the WordPress sidebar, navigate to Branda > Dashboard.

Click the Manage All Modules button, then tick the checkboxes for All under each subcategory in the popup window. (FYI, you can select only certain elements if All feels too cluttered for your taste.)

Branda dash manage modules select all
From Branda’s dashboard, you can select all the modules in a few clicks.

The following steps will cover how to use these to effectively customize the WordPress backend.

2. Customize the Login Page

With Branda, you can use one of a number of pre-designed templates, start completely from scratch, or pick and choose to modify specific elements―which is what we’ll do here.

Let’s start with the front door of your website: the login screen. There’s nothing wrong with the default login screen, but there’s room for improvement here.

wp login screen default
Default WordPress login screen.

We’ll configure this so you can display your client’s logo and colors instead.

From Branda’s Dashboard, navigate to Front-End > Login Screen > Content. Then, in the Logo & Background section, do the following:

  • Replace the default WordPress logo with your client’s logo.
  • Remove the logo link and alt text, or replace it with your client’s site.
  • Change the background of the login page. You can assign it a solid color (from your client’s color palette) or place a branded image of theirs as the background photo.
Branda customize logo & background
Branda customize logo & background settings.
Branda custom login preview
Our new login page, customized through Branda.

There are many options for customization to the Login screen section in Branda―from Content, to Design, Colors, and even Custom CSS. We’ll move on to other features now, but keep in mind how large the Branda playground is, and come back to experiment in all the modules once you get to know the plugin better.

The last element I want to bring to your attention here is Redirection.

branda redirection menu
Branda Redirection menu.

You can see the blue boxes are selected as Default. To change this at any time, click on Custom. Then type in the text entry fields for After Login or After logout redirect URL, where you’d like to redirect to.

This may be particularly helpful if you want all users to immediately be directed to a specific page (either inside or outside WordPress) when they log in or out. You’ll likely want to use this if you run a membership site or a Multisite network.

3. Adjust Login Security Settings

For this next customization, I’m going to suggest you use the Defender plugin―which is also free.

Defender plugin banner
Defender Plugin Banner

In addition to its awesome WordPress security capabilities, it allows you to create a two-factor authentication for the login page.

Defender 2FA
Defender 2FA

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t trust your clients to do a good job creating strong passwords… but it’s generally wise to assume the best but prepare for the worst here. Two-factor authentication ensures that even if the passwords they generate for WordPress fall short in security standards, they’ll be forced to authenticate their identity on another device. It’s a layer of protection you’d be foolish not to implement.

4. Revamp the Admin Toolbar

We’re now ready to work our customization magic on the admin toolbar with Branda.

WP default toolbar
WordPress default toolbar.

This doesn’t look too bad, but we can make few changes to make it more our own.

From Branda’s Admin Area, go to Admin Bar. First up, the logo. We want to make this unique to our client―just as we did for the login page―so let’s pop it in here.

Admin bar customize logo menu
Admin bar customize logo menu.

Next, we’ll handle Toolbar Visibility. By default, the toolbar is visible only to the logged in users, however you can change its visibility for logged out users too.

So for any of your clients you want to have toolbar visibility while logged out, make sure the checkboxes next to those roles are ticked. Likewise, if you want to disable clients from visiting their site from the top menu (because it might be too confusing), untick those checkboxes. Just think about this from their perspective and leave only what would be the most beneficial for them to have here.

Admin bar tools visibility
Admin Bar Tools Visibility.

The same goes for Menu Items Visibility, which is the next section of options. Choose whether you want to show all the menu items or hide specific menu items from particular user roles. In the configuration below, we’re allowing “Howdy, <name>”, “WordPress Menu”, “Comments” and “Menu” to show, while hiding “Add New”, My Sites”, “SmartCrawl Pro”, “Site Menu”, and “Updates”.

We’ll also indicate here who―as defined by User Role―can see the menu items. Let’s say we want to hide the chosen menu items from everyone. To do so, tick the checkboxes next to all roles except Administrator (since that’s you).

Admin bar menu items visibility & user roles
Admin bar, Menu Items Toolbar Visibility & User Roles.

You can also make Custom entries, which we’ll skip for now. Just below that, you’ll see Reorder menu items. Click on the Reorder Menus button. Once done, the top toolbar menu icons will wiggle, allowing you to drag-and-drop them into any order you prefer. When you’re done with your placement, hit the blue Save Changes button.

admin bar reorder menus
After saving, we got a confirmation message in the form of a brief popup.

Now that we have the admin toolbar at the top of the dashboard cleaned up and customized, it’s time to turn our attention to the color palette.

5. Customize the Colors of the Dashboard

Ideally, the color scheme of the WordPress dashboard will match whatever skin you applied to the login screen. However, if you have a reason to give something else a try, know that you have a couple options to play with here.

From the Branda dashboard, go to Admin Area > Color Schemes.

Branda color schemes
Branda color schemes.

In this section, you can control two things:

  1. You can enable which WordPress color schemes you want to make available to users.
  2. You can choose an alternate color scheme for users to see upon logging in.

There are ten ready-made color schemes you can choose from, or you can completely make you own. To do so, you just click on the Pencil (edit) icon next to the Branda color scheme, and switch up any or all available elements to the shades of your choice.

This is a great way to make a visual impact that is tailor-made to your client’s business portfolio.

6. Widgets and The Welcome Message

Branda has another really cool feature: Dashboard Text Widgets. For those of you feeling adventurous and wanting to give your clients a truly impressive and well-supported experience in WordPress, give this a try.

Branda text widgets
Branda text widgets.

You can create text-based widgets for your dashboard. Say you want to give some simple directions for clients to follow, or provide them with a reminder on how to get in touch when they need help, you can create those types of messages here.

Go to Branda’s Widgets > Dashboard Widgets > Text Widgets, and click on the purple +Add Text Widget button.

Type in a Title and your text content; you can also add Media images, links, etc. Then click the Add (checkmark) button. Tada! See below for what the finished product looks like.

Branda text widget
A custom text widget, created in Branda.

Your new widget will show up in the dashboard, along with the other WordPress default widgets. FYI, if you want to deactivate any of these and prevent your clients from seeing them, you have that capability in Branda.

Go to Branda > Widgets, and in the Widgets Visibility section, tick the checkboxes for any of the widgets―WP default or created by you―that you don’t want to show in the dashboard. You can also disable any widgets that auto-generated when you installed a new plugin from here.

Branda text widget
Controlling visibility of widgets through Branda.

This is the perfect place to get creative. Just remember that the widgets should be relevant and helpful. If they only distract or annoy your clients, they’ll have the opposite affect of what you’re going for. The idea here is to add value, not clutter.

Within this same section, you can also change the default WordPress Welcome message that appears on the dashboard.

Branda dashboard welcome
Branda dashboard welcome.

Simply type in the text box whatever you want your greeting to be, and save your changes. Voila, you have a new Welcome message.

7. Create Help Resources

The Help Content section in Branda offers a way to create any number of messages for your clients. To use this feature, navigate to Branda’s Admin Area > Help Content.

Create whatever help content you like in the popup window, title, text content (again, you can include links or media), then click the Add (checkmark) button. Be sure to click the blue Save Changes button at the top of the screen when you’re done.

Branda help content
Branda Help content.

Here are just a few of many possibilities for creating Help Content:

  • Include timely reminders: “Always save a post as Draft before Publishing!”
  • Share tips on how clients can make the most out of their new WordPress website: “Tip: Set Smush Pro to automatically compress images.”
  • Provide a list of resources to help clients if they get stuck or need further assistance: “For any questions or assistance, email site support: [email protected]

Include anything here that you think will better assist your clients. And of course, make them aware that you have personalized Help content.

Branda help content preview.
Branda Help Content preview.

The Help Content module created in Branda replaces the existing WordPress Help content, which sits at the top right of any Admin screen (the word “Help”, with a clickable dropdown arrow next to it).

8. Restrict Access Based on Role

To control more of what your users have access to in WordPress, you can fully customize what each role is capable of doing. This is where you can refine what exactly your clients user roles are within the site, ensuring that the backend privileges for given roles are exactly what you want them to be.

You can hide and disable access to pretty much any element in WordPress through Branda―Plugins, Pages, Posts, Media, Dashboard, Comments, Appearance―the list goes on.

Hiding/disabling items from other users is a two step process. Step one is to hide/disable access for any elements we don’t want other users to see or use. Step two is to go back in and show/enable access for us, as the Admin, for any elements we’ve hidden. Let’s walk through it.

From the WordPress Dashboard, navigate to Branda > Admin Area > Admin Menu. Next to Custom Admin Menu, click the Customize button.

Branda admin menu customize
Branda’s Admin Menu, Customize.

First, we’ll create a User Role (that’s our Step one, from above). Click on the Choose the customization option dropdown arrow, and select User Roles.

Branda custom admin user roles
Branda Custom Admin, User Roles.

For any element we wish to hide, we’ll hover over it, then click the padlock icon to hide/disable it (it will visually change from unlocked to locked). If you want to select all at once, there’s a quick checkbox for that at the top.

Make sure to click the Apply button at the bottom, and give it a few seconds to complete the input. When it’s finished, it will return you to the primary page, and you’ll get a brief popup confirmation message.

Branda User Roles, Hide/Disable access
Branda User Roles, Hide/Disable access.

Second, we’ll create a Custom User (that’s our Step two, from above). Click on the Choose the customization option dropdown arrow, and select Custom Users.

Start typing your name in the Search user field, then select it from the dropdown.

Branda custom user, select name
Branda Custom User, select name.

Again, hover over any elements for which you want to Show/Enable access―to you, as the site Admin―and click the padlock icon (it will visually change from locked to unlocked).

Once more, make sure to click the Apply button at the bottom, and wait a few seconds for the popup confirmation message to appear.

Branda custom user show/enable access
Branda Custom User, Show/Enable access.

And hiding/disabling, showing/enabling aren’t the only options here. You can Hide but Allow Access, or Duplicate, or change any number of components in Settings, such as assigning a different icon, changing the menu item name, adding your own CSS class… and more. You can even add a submenu under each.

All of the settings are fluid. Revise anything at will by repeating the above process and implementing desired settings or permissions. Or reference the support documentation for a full accounting of all things Branda.

A final note regarding priorities of the Customization options: the settings in Custom Users will always override those in User Roles.

Having this kind of control sitewide is a great comfort, to you and your clients, knowing they won’t be able to inadvertently make unwanted changes, simply by preventing access to the features they don’t need.

The Panache of Personalization

You might not think there’s much that can be done to customize the actual WordPress content management system, but, as you can see from this WordPress backend tutorial, there are quite a few opportunities here to leave a lasting impression with your clients.

You know your client better than anyone else, which means you’ll understand which customizations will lead to the best user experience for them.

Be sure to set yourself up with the right WordPress plugins. Doing so will save you the hassle of trying to code changes on your own, and prevent accidental revisions on the backend from unwitting clients.

It will also make your client’s website professional, polished, and perfectly suited to them.

Editor’s Note: This post was rewritten for accuracy and relevancy.
[Originally Published: July 2018 / Revised: February 2022]

How much do you put into client website personalization? What’s the most common request you receive from clients regarding making their website their own? Let us know in the comments below.

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Janette Burhans

Janette Burhans Janette Burhans is a content creator at WPMU DEV, who writes blog articles and the weekly WhiP & Roundup emails. Her professional career as an author and artist spans over two decades, half of those in the world of WordPress. Her writing has been featured in Glamour magazine, and her personal blog, Platinum Pink. Connect with Janette on Twitter.

Brenda Barron

Brenda Barron Brenda is a freelance writer from Southern California. She specializes in WordPress, tech, and business and founded WP Theme Roundups. When not writing about all things, she's spending time with her family.