It’s an important decision
Your choice of a theme for a website is a crucial decision that will have a big effect on your experience in putting the site together, as well as, of course, the presentation and functionality of the site. We recommend that the decision is given plenty of consideration.
The information we provide here contains our opinions and advice based on years of choosing WordPress themes for various website projects.
The concept of “theme switching”
It’s common to hear about “theme switching” with WordPress. Technically, the active theme (the theme which is currently in effect) can always be changed, in the sense that it’s simple to go into the Admin, click a few times, and cause a different installed theme to be active.
But with a fully-developed site, switching themes and having your content and customizations continue to work smoothly together is definitely not a given. Depending upon the two themes, your content, and how much customization you’ve done, it can require some real work. This tutorial from WP Tuts Plus describes the process in detail, and shows how involved it can be.
For this reason, we recommend that you think of the choice of themes as most likely permanent for the life of the website. Of course you still can always decide to change later and put in the hours needed to adjust everything, but you’ll have a realistic attitude about that possibility.
Free themes and commercial themes
There are thousands of free themes available at the official WordPress.org Themes Directory. There are also thousands of commercial themes which can be purchased.
Commercial themes are often referred to as “premium themes”, but this is only a marketing term, because the fact that a theme is for sale and referred to as “premium” is no guarantee whatsoever that it is of good quality.
Free themes from the Themes Directory have at least been put through a basic check in order to be allowed in the Directory. Commercial themes are not required to be subjected to any third-party quality review.
It’s important that you do your best to determine the quality of a theme and the support available, and not make any assumptions based only on its cost.
Smart criteria for choosing a theme
It’s common for ordinary, less-technical WordPress users to choose a theme from among the approximately 10,000 available based almost entirely on the appearance of the theme. This is really unwise, since there are other very important considerations. We recommend the following considerations, given below in approximate order of importance.
We’ll use the term “author” to refer to individuals as well as companies who develop themes for sale or distribution.
- Is the theme author solid and well-established in the business sense? The concern here is avoiding authors or companies which may turn out to be “fly-by-night”, and disappear or go out of business in a short period of time. When this happens, people using the author’s themes no longer receive updates (important in all areas of WordPress) or support, and are on their own when problems arise.
- Does the author have a good reputation as a theme developer? With the larger theme development shops, this can be determined by researching and reading reviews. With smaller companies or individuals, it can be harder to determine. Theme marketplaces with multiple authors often feature a system of ratings and reviews which can be very helpful.
- Does the author provide support? Is it timely and helpful? Don’t put your trust in a theme — someone else’s coding work, which is likely incomprehensible to you — without the assurance that they’ll help if you have a problem. Support for themes is often via web forums, which may be adequate, if questions are answered by knowledgeable people in a reasonable amount of time. Find out what type of support is offered, and try to find out how good it is.
- Do you want to get involved in using a theme framework? These themes have significant differences from regular themes. If you’re not sure, don’t choose a theme framework, and don’t choose a child theme based on a theme framework.
- Does the website need to be mobile responsive? This is currently almost a universal requirement, considering the fast-growing use of smartphones and tablets for accessing the Web.
- What type of website are you building? What should people be able to learn and do there? There is a huge range of website styles possible with WordPress themes, other than the classic blog site: e-commerce, magazine, newspaper, portfolio, non-profit, retail, entertainment, photography, social, religious, personal, corporate, small business, wedding, and many others.
- What type of Home page do you want? Attractive Home pages with all kinds of added functionality are one of the main features offered by themes. There’s a wide range of types of Home pages available, from the classic blog layout to magazine-like presentations to those featuring full-screen graphics, and more.
- Are there specific website features which are important for your project? Do you need your site to present certain types of information or interactivity?
- What kind of visual appearance are you looking for? This is often the first — or worse, the only — consideration, but it’s no mistake that we put it almost last on the list. This is because the visual appearance of the site will often change radically once you fill it with your own logo and images, customize colors and typefaces, and choose from layout options. Many themes allow you to make those customizations fairly easily without any coding, so that the site you produce with a certain theme ends up looking totally different from the theme demo the author provides.
- What is your budget? We recommend that, if at all possible, you not let the price or free-ness of a theme be a major criteria in your decision. For-sale themes are usually pretty reasonably priced, and free themes can be excellent. Instead, focus on the other criteria above.
Look at the layout of the Home page and other pages, and take inventory of the features that are included. Assuming you’re not an advanced web developer, you’ll be limited by what the theme offers in these two aspects.
Providing reviews on the various authors and companies is beyond the scope of this Course, but we’ve provided links to some good, recent reviews in the Resources section at the end of the Lesson.
An important distinction needs to be made between theme companies and theme marketplaces. The big player in theme marketplaces at this time is ThemeForest.net, which currently features over 3,000 WordPress themes, in addition to themes for other types of web software. There are multiple theme authors, and no quality control other than the public ratings and reviews. The fact that someone you know found a great theme on ThemeForest has zero bearing on the quality of the other themes there.
Good themes can definitely be found on ThemeForest, but the buyer needs to beware — there is simply no guarantee or standard of quality. It’s a marketplace, not a theme company.
- WordPress Theme Seller Review Series on wpmu.org.