When I initially started down the rocky road to learning SharePoint branding, it began with SharePoint 2007. Back then the branding experience, from a designers perspective, was seriously lacking. SharePoint Designer 2007, albeit a forerunner for FrontPage, was somewhat helpful as I embarked on my journey. My first SharePoint branding project was an intranet for a client, and the firm I was working for at the time, gave me free reign on the overall design and layout of the site. When I conducted my research into how to change the look and feel of the site, I felt that customizing an out-of-the-box theme was too limiting. Sure I could have gone into the hive and copied an existing theme folder, and then customized it. However, this strategy didn't meet my requirements. I wanted more control over the design of the master page and page layout. In other words, I wanted to have this site not look like SharePoint at all.
I had initially used a Team Site definition to create the site collection. After digging around in SharePoint Designer 2007, I sat scratching my head wondering how to change the master page and the CSS styles. In the browser, I was able to access the master page gallery through view all content, but there was no option to swap out the master page. Under look and feel all I could do was change the theme. After reading many blogs, I came across Heather Solomon's articles, and a number of other SharePoint branding pioneers. I came to the conclusion that the only way to change out the master page was to start with a Publishing Site definition. Truth be told, I never questioned why.
After I created the new site, I was thriled to see that I was able to access many additional folders in SharePoint Designer 2007, including the _catalogs folder and style library. However, I noticed that there was a lot more there than what I needed. Thus I was able to customize a master page and link to a custom style sheet.
Moving ahead now to SharePoint 2010, and convinced that the only way to change the branding of a SharePoint site required that the site be a Publishing Site to begin with, I thought this to be the truth. During a later SharePoint 2010 project, a team member educated me on the ability to activate the publishing feature on a team site, for example, as opposed to starting with a Publishing Site definition. This approach meant that you avoided all the unnecessary bits and pieces that you didn't need.
Just recently, another colleague approached me to question why activating the publishing feature was a requirement in order to brand the site. Like a parrot I told him that in order to create a custom master page and style sheet, the only way to do so was to activate the publishing feature. I showed him how using a Team Site did not give you the option to change out the master page through the browser. Truthfully, I was not convinced that my knowledge was accurate. If I was going to stand by my convictions, I had to dig a little deeper.
As a test, I created a Team Site and opened it in SharePoint Designer 2010. Next I created a folder in the root called Style Library and within that I created a folder for styles. Next i created a CSS style sheet. In the _catalogs folder I copied the V4.master and gave it a unique name. I then linked my CSS style sheet to this custom master page. I had to play around with the style sheet path to get the browser to find it. But once I got that right, I was able to change the background color of the default welcome page. So now I was scratching my head, wondering why I was using the publishing feature to begin with. Was activating it unnecesary to be begin with?
While digging around some more in order to better understand the differences between these different approaches, I came to the following conclusions.
After activating the SharePoint Server Infrastructure Publishing feature on a nonpublishing site collection, you get:
1. Access additional user groups and permissions, thus giving you the ability to assign publishing-related roles.
2. Access additional site administration configuration options.
3. Access additional sections on the site theme page, such as inherit theme and apply theme.
4. XSL style sheets for applying styles to data-driven Web Parts such as Summary Links, Content Query and Table of Contents are now found in the style library.
5. Additional document libraries and lists are created, such as content and restructure reports, reusable content, and site collection documents and images.
6. Additional content types.
7. Additional page layout columns.
8. Additional web parts.
9. Additional page editing menu on the ribbon.
10. Addition of the timer job.
When the SharePoint Server Publishing feature is enabled on a nonpublishing site, you get:
1. The ability to change out the page layout within the browser, without which you would be limited to the default out-of-the-box layouts.
2. The ability to customize a page layout using SharePoint Designer.
3. The ability to swap out the master page in the brower.
4. The ability to create a custom style sheet for your site and manually select it using the site settings. in addition to doing so in SharePoint Designer.
5. Additional site templates.
6. Additional regional settings.
7. Additional document libraries and lists, such as documents, images, pages, and workflow tasks.
8. Page editing menu on the ribbon.
9. The Manage Content and Structure link is added to the Site Actions menu
Of course, you'll need to activate at both the site collection and site level to access this goodness. So the summary of my exercise is that while you can make certain changes to a team site's master page to change the look and feel of the site, there are many limitations to take into account. At the end of the day, it all comes down to your needs and the purpose of your site collection and/or site. If you would like to allow your users to change out page layouts for their sites, including offering the ability for people to manage approval of these pages, you'll need to activate the publishing feature.
I'll continue using the publishing feature as my starting point to branding SharePoint sites knowing that I can talk intelligently to the difference. I hope you've enjoyed my research and experience.