How to choose a WordPress theme

There are too many WordPress themes to choose from. That’s a great sign of the health of the WordPress ecosystem, but it can also be a real problem. Wouldn’t it be great if there was just 3 themes instead of 3,000? Okay maybe not. But let’s face it, the right theme can help you build your business. The wrong theme can set you back a lot of time and money. So it’s an important choice.

Don’t get sold on the demo

First principle of theme selection is not to get too excited about the demo’s. After a tour through Envato Themes you might wish you could buy 10 themes and install them all. Which by the way is not possible in case you were wondering, a WP theme is a singular choice. Part of what makes it so important. You can’t (easily) mix and match styles or elements from multiple themes. Now demo sites are useful in theme selection, but bear in mind in most cases your site will look nothing like the demo. At least not without substantial work to reproduce the demo. A lot of themes come with demo imports. Few of these demo imports will actually work as intended, but when they do, they fill your site with content that you will then have to pour through and replace. This is the illusion of demo sites, in most cases they don’t really help you that much. And what you often get instead is that sinking feeling of installing a theme you just bought for it’s demo, and finding it looks like #(@* without the months of hard work that the theme developers did preparing the demo site.

Do choose versatile container themes

This sites uses the Blocksy theme. It’s an example of a new style of themes that have emerged in recent years to work with Gutenberg. We don’t really have a term for this that is popularized, but these type of themes are versatile, and they tend to offer minimal styling and focus on being a good container for blocks. In other words they are much lighter-weight (and generally faster) than the busy and heavily styled themes you find on sites like ThemeForest. Another example of this style would be Hello by Elementor. Now that theme is specifically designed for use with the Elementor page builder, but it has the same concept. It provides very minimal styling and features itself, focusing instead on supporting blocks and widgets.

This advice really pairs well with what we talked about in not getting sold on the demo. A versatile and minimal styled theme might not seem as impressive at first. It might not seem as tailor fit to your type of business. Yet we find as developers we’re better off using Blocksy to build a real estate website than any existing “real estate themes”. Because what’s important isn’t having the exact layouts and styles for a certain type of business, it’s having a solid foundation to build upon.

Making the counter-point for authoritative themes

The first 2 sections in this guide tend to push you towards more modern and lighter-weight themes. Containers and frameworks, block-based themes… instead of authoritative and heavily styled themes. We standby this as good advice, most of the time. Especially for business sites or major projects. But what about when it’s a DIY-project, little or no budget, and you’re trying to get a decent looking site started at the minimal cost? In this situation we might say the playing field levels a bit, and using a theme that looks close to the finished product you want is a reasonable choice. Just bear in mind you might be able to adopt a minimal theme like Blocksy or Hello and get the same result yourself. This is certainly where the choice becomes less clear. If you do choose a theme with the idea of importing demo content and adapting it, try to determine if the theme is solid from a performance perspective. Even when your goal is to minimize development and get up and running quickly, you still want to avoid bloated themes that will deliver a poor user experience.

Think about your development plans

Site owners make the wrong theme selection choice 99% of the time. That’s not an official stat with a lot of research behind it, just in case you’re about to head to Twitter to announce the finding. It’s just our opinion as developers. We see site after site where the theme is a problem. The theme is slow. The theme produces poor quality code that hurts SEO. The theme is cumbersome to work with leading to slow development and higher costs. The theme lacks intuitive UX impairing the use of visual editing. The theme clutters the WP Admin. The theme doesn’t utilize the front-end WP customizer or uses it poorly.

Is that a long enough list? These are all avoidable by simply choosing a quality theme, one where the developers were kind enough to not cause these problems. And understand this, these are problems caused by themes. Almost always these come from cutting corners in the development of themes, using bad practices, and just generally focusing on the wrong things. And why do theme developers do this? Because site owners reward them by buying their themes regardless of any objections from qualified people. Which is why your reading this guide, right? To avoid making that same mistake. Here is the good news, most of your competitors have already made that mistake.

If there is one request we have of our clients current and future, it’s too really think about the process of development and the development plans for the future of the site. Don’t be short-sighted and think how does this theme look on Tuesday. Ask how will this theme support my support 2-3 years down the road. Will it help us get where we want to go?

Understand the costs of the decision

The wrong theme will cost you money, period. It will cost you sales. It will cost you development time. A good theme supports your site in delivering a great experience, and it also supports your development processes. Here are some specific considerations that affect the bottom-line:

  1. If the theme is bulky and has a lot of styles it will often impair development of custom features on your site. This could double or triple the cost of any custom development.
  2. If the theme is poorly optimized and bloated, you might need to spend thousands of dollars to have your site optimized… or just accept the lost sales when your visitors get fed up and click away.
  3. If your theme has a poor approach to managing configuration options such as styling, layout, you may be unable to create a smooth and efficient editing process. Specifically your theme should provide good support for common “tweaks” to content such as:
    1. Hiding the page title.
    2. Changing the width of pages and posts with options like full-width, boxed, narrow.
    3. Setting default colors in a way that branding can be enforced and editors can select them easily.
    4. Loading fonts efficiently and making them available for use during content editing.

Theme compatibility for your plugins and custom features

For most major websites built on the WordPress framework, the concern is not “how will the blog look”. It’s how will the checkout look? How will the real estate listings look? How will the members-only content area look? WP has emerged from being a blog platform a long time ago and is now the leading CMS used on the web. And with all the thousands of themes available, most cannot support even a fraction of the plugins and plugin combinations possible. Again this speaks to why flexibility and a solid foundation are what is important in a theme. Because no theme is going to support all the content you plan to house on any significant site. The only plugin that has anything close to universal theme support is WooCommerce.

Sometimes if your site is based around a major plugin such as one of the many membership plugins, you might start searching for a theme that is recommended for that plugin. This is a reasonable direction to pursue, however exercise caution. You might be giving up a lot just for the support of one part of your site… at the expense of other parts of your site. Again we’d recommend a solid foundational theme like Blocksy and then building a child theme with support for important plugins.

When it comes to support for custom features that you plan to build into your site, unless a theme developer has a crystal ball they obviously cannot provide layout or specific styles for what you plan to build. Creating theme compatibility (a fancy way of saying writing custom CSS and HTML) is going to be needed as part of your project when adding custom features. What a good theme will do here is firstly it will not interfere. That’s really what we want when doing custom development, is we want the theme to know it’s place and not interfere with aggressive styling. We also want it to provide some useful functions that support what we’re building in an indirect way. Examples of this might be breadcrumbs, taxonomy styles, global color settings, font loading. Things we can use so that we can avoid re-inventing the wheel. Developer friendly themes are themes that have thought about (and tested) how developers will actually work with the theme.

Our recommendation for Blocksy

We don’t want you think of this entire guide as one big advertisement for our favorite theme. However we think our choice is worth considering, because it is based on trying out a lot of themes and theming approaches over many years. By the way, if the budget affords it, we’d often say a fully custom theme is worth consideration. However, for most sites it isn’t necessary or practical to delve into a fully custom base theme. Instead we recommend Blocksy as the base theme. With Blocksy you’ll have a light-weight, block-based and modern approach to the theming. You’ll avoid almost all of the problems described in this guide with older and bloated themes, or highly opinionated themes.

We can certainly speak to the ease of development with Blocksy. We’ve built dozens of sites on top of Blocksy in a range of industries. We normally will build a child theme because most of our projects involve at least some custom coding and unique features, or integration of plugins that require new templates and styles.

We’ve used Blocksy with page builders (Elementor and Oxygen) as well as without page builders, relying primarily on Gutenberg blocks. It’s a theme that is focused on block-support (Gutenberg editor blocks). Yet it can work and play nice with Elementor or other page builders.

Considering custom theme development

Whenever the topic of fully custom development comes up certain caveats have to be stated, and certain considerations are very important to making a good choice. Firstly, understand just how big a project building a base theme is. Even in the world of base WordPress theme development, there are kits and frameworks and skeleton themes that are commonly used as a starting point. This can lessen the cost and provide some structure. Beware certainly of trusting a base theme development project to a developer or company that might not be qualified to engineer a quality theme. Bear in mind that a custom theme is only better than an off-the-shelf theme… if it’s actually built better. And realize theme makers spend tens of thousands of dollars in creating and testing their products. It’s actually not so easy to match them. There are a lot of edge areas of specialized expertise that go well beyond just writing HTML, CSS and PHP to build a WordPress theme.

A common and practical option for most sites is choosing a base theme such as Blocksy, then building a custom child theme. Nearly all sites that use a 3rd party theme should have a child theme even if it is seldom used. This is because any custom code you produce needs to go into the child theme rather than into the base theme. Theme hacking (making changes directly in 3rd party base themes) is unfortunately still an all-to-common mistake in the industry. When developers do this, it results in a site that can no longer be updated because theme updates would overwrite the custom changes. Inevitably these updates are eventually put in place, leading to the site breaking. This is why even when we’re not sure if a site will need any custom theme code, we’ll usually make a child theme at the beginning of the project anyway.

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