How to choose a WordPress theme: 7 questions

January 19, 2012

I do love WordPress. I see many businesses, especially small ones, constructing their sites with WordPress.* I also see people who can spend hours of their life getting tangled in the back end, when they thought they were using some simple DIY blogging tool. Well, it can be. Until blind ambition takes over, and you decide to implement that fancy new site scheme at 2 pm and at 11 pm you’re still there. Swearing.

So here is my guide to choosing a good theme that will work for you and not take over your waking hours. Seven questions to ask yourself.

1. What’s your skill level with WordPress, CSS and HTML?

Honestly?

Every time you see the phrase ‘Easy to use’ attached to a theme you should mentally add the phrase ‘…For a professional designer.’ Yes, themes are easier to use than ever, but most themes do involve a substantial learning curve, if you’re not already familiar with WordPress.

Drag and drop themes, in particular, make life very easy for designers creating small websites for their clients, but they can be a total non-starter if you need help to put your design together in the first place. (Quick tip: The ‘happy customer’ testimonials should tell you a bit about the user base. Are they all web designers?)

Similarly, all premium (paid) theme companies say they offer good support – but they will expect you to know the basics. I’ve used about 4 different premium theme providers by now, and I find that customer support is pretty technical. It’s not impossible to use these as a total newcomer, but if you need your hand holding every step of the way, you may find that Support is just not supportive enough.

 

2. How perfectionist are you?

You need to know yourself. Happy is the woman who can download a theme, activate it and move on with her life. Personally, I’m a tweaker. I always want to change something. Over the years, I’ve learned that I need to make sure I’m pretty happy with the overall site scheme, before I start putting it in place. Text size is easy to change, blog layout rather harder.

The problem with this admirable get-your-hands-dirty mentality is that you may hope to build a Ferrari but have the skills (and budget) to simply acquire an old banger. This is where cheap really begins to be expensive. It may take you 3 days to do something that a pro developer would solve in half an hour.

Most DIYers never consider the cost implications of their own time investment. OK, if you want to build your WordPress skills. Not so good if your main business is something else entirely. The true perfectionist should probably save up and hire someone.

3. Should you go with free or paid themes?

I have a whole rant on this.

My own position is that free often ends up pretty expensive. There are some very good free themes out there, it’s true. The best are the classic, popular themes in the WordPress theme directory, especially the basic-looking ones which are designed to be used with your own stylesheet. (Are you a web designer? Off you go.)

Unfortunately, free can also mean a theme which doesn’t get updated much, offers no support and doesn’t work well with all the major browsers. I’ve had some really frustrating experiences with free themes. At worst, there are free themes out there which contain nasty code – if you check out Smashing Magazine’s 2011 round-up of themes, you’ll see a number of comments underneath about themes which contain malware.

Personally, I tend to work with premium themes and frameworks, because they’re tried and tested, there is support available, and the developers have an incentive to keep updating them.

Premium themes aren’t perfect either. There are some really expensive premium themes out there – usually totally unnecessary, but catering to newbies. You shouldn’t need to pay any more than $100 for an individual theme with everything you need and usually rather less. (I really don’t think you get what you pay for in this market).

Check out that you will get everything you need – some theme companies make their money through add-ons. It’s like buying a Lego starter pack and then realising you don’t have enough to make a spaceship with.

4. Will your core website content look good with this theme?

As a general rule, text-heavy blogs do better with a light or white background, while video and photography sites stand out with a deeper background.

If your site is blog-led, look very carefully at the design of the blog index view (often a featured post and a list of abbreviated recent posts), as well as the individual blog post view. These are where most of your readers will spend their time. Do you like what you see? Does it look good?

Also look at comment layout, if you’re interested in conversation. Good layouts for comments will use gravatars/avatars and signal the difference between comment and response (through indenting or colour, for example).

Investigate the menus/navigation, and see if your own style fits with it. For example, some themes are optimised for simple, pared-down navigation. Others look great with lots of pages on display.

5. Does the theme deal well with all your content?

Good themes will offer layouts for different content types, e.g. portfolio, gallery, contact form, archives, alternate pages.

6. What are the implications of this site for your images?

Take a close look at the theme demonstration, which is usually optimised for a particular type of use, and mentally swap in your own content. Look at the image sizes and types being used.

Will that leading-edge site with all the dramatic architectural photos (see Paragrams, in the photo above) look equally good with the head-and-shoulder shots you tend to use?

 

Does the site use image dimensions which might mean you need to work rather differently? For example, Letterbox styles (wide narrow rectangles) are popular at the moment, but these can be time-consuming to create from conventional images. The theme I’m using at the moment, for example, needs home page slider images which are very wide and narrow, and somewhat boring on the right hand side.

And finally…

7. Is your chosen theme here for the long term?

(Or at least, as long as you need it).

I look for a theme that is popular and updated frequently, and suits current/future plans.

There are some lovely-looking free themes out there which just fall apart once you start to look at them in detail, and which don’t really get updated. If there’s a showcase showing the theme in use, click through to the organisation to see if that theme is still being used. Not only does this show you a live site using the theme, but if the theme’s not actually used any more, that can raise a little flag of doubt. (But note that some site developers are just very indecisive!).

The latest themes are stressing their suitability for mobiles and tablet as well as desktop/laptop computers (often termed ‘responsive design’). This is great for people in businesses where people read or look up content while travelling, or which cater to a heavily mobile-focused demographic. Many of us …aren’t. *sadface*

So there you go. Buyer beware. Non-buyer, beware more. Interested in your experiences of choosing and if you have any tips to pass on.

*This entire post is about WordPress.org, which you host on your own domain.

ETA: I’ve been asked about themes that I do recommend. I’ve only used a small number of theme families, but I have had very happy experiences with Elegant Themes and the StudioPress framework.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura January 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Hi Alison –  this is a really helpful article.  It would have saved me lots of heartache when I was just starting with Wordpress about a year ago.  I’m just curious if there are any Premium Theme sites or companies you recommend over others?  I’ve had pretty good luck with various Theme Forest themes but occasionally have found myself disappointed to find that to get the next level of service or additional options, it’s more money.  

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Ali Mac January 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Hi Laura,

Thanks! I use Elegant Themes at the moment, and I do thoroughly recommend them – sites look great, support is good and the membership scheme is excellent value for money. That said, they are best for someone who’s prepared to take the theme as is. They’re complex themes, so they can be tricky to modify. 

I have also used StudioPress for clients, and been very happy with them. I’m looking for an excuse to use Woo Themes soon, but haven’t actually done so.

I’ve been through lots of themes. :0). My classic mistake is to fall in love with one nifty feature and then discover it doesn’t do the basics.

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Laura Viviana January 26, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Alison- thank you so much for this article! I know it will come in handy in the following weeks as I choose my website theme and get down to it. I appreciate your expertise! 

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Ali Mac January 26, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Thanks Laura, glad you liked it.

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Bruce Barker April 22, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Hi Alison,
I’m trying to pick a theme for our small company to start from, and have hired somebody (in India :( ) to customize it for us. I’m glad you mentioned the complexity of Elegant Themes. I liked the feature part of the home page on their “the Corporation), but can’t tell how flexible the rest would be to modify, and they don’t seem to have a framework to help with that.
StudioPress’ framework is Genesis, right? Is it fairly ‘easy’ to use – drag & droppy? And do you think it’d be possible to modify one of their themes to have a features section like The Corporation?
Thanks, Bruce

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Vigrx vanguard March 23, 2014 at 7:28 am

I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you create this website yourself or did you hire someone to
do it for you? Plz respond as I’m looking to design my own blog and would like to know where u got this from.
thank you

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