Today developers, including DIY web developers have an enormous array of themes and frameworks available at minimal prices. For $60 to $200 you can buy ready to go themes with many premium plugins bundled in.  Unfortunately only some of the commercial themes are built by responsible professionals.

In most cases one can get a site published and ready for content creation in a day or two.

Every theme comes with a basic, starter design and that is what attracts most people.  If the design closely matches your vision of the site that you want, it will likely influence your decision.

If you do not have a clear idea of what your site should look like an awesome looking theme will attract for all the wrong reasons.  Themes are designed to sell themes, not services or other products. The starter designs impress with views designed for entirely different purposes than most sites demand.

Without major customization, staying with the initial, impressive theme design will make your site look just like a thousand others that have followed the same path and will most likely not serve your business purpose well at all.

Site design should always start with your business goals and appeal to your users.

Theme choice is almost irrelevant

Experienced website developers know that theme choice is almost irrelevant. They will be customizing the theme in any event.

The most important criteria for a good theme lie under the hood. 

  • How well it is coded and documented.
  • Compliance with best practices for performance, SEO and compatibility with other elements such as WordPress and Plugins.
  • Will it be maintained and keep pace with developing trends.
  • Ease of customization and future maintenance.

Some theme evaluation tips

You don’t have to be an engineer to evaluate a car.  Here are some basic ways to test a theme that looks good on the surface:

  • Check the theme appearance in multiple browsers, Firefox, Chrome, Explorer, Edge, Safari.  It should look the same.
  • Narrow your browser window to see how the elements will stack on mobile devices.  Check the fixed header areas and menu behavior in landscape views on mobiles.
  • Look at the support site and see how many issues are raised by users and if you can live with the answers.  Also check the dates to make sure that the answers are recent.
  • The number of theme sales will give you an idea of popularity.  It will also tell you how many sites may look like yours.
  • Check the theme in GTmetrix.com to see how it performs.  Copy the theme’s demo URL. Then visit GTmetrix and paste the URL in the “analyze” block and click it. The site should score at least a high B for both Page Speed and YSlow and load in a few seconds. As you add content and plugins it will just get slower. Bad coding will show up in the recommendations. There will always be three or four recommendations at the top that show warnings. The following are typical of themes using sliders:
    • “Defer parsing of JavaScript”
    • “Specify image dimensions”
    • “Remove query strings from static resources
      You can ignore these if the other indicators are positive.
  • You can also similarly check the coding quality on the W3C code validation Service. 

Themes vs Frameworks

While most themes come with a ready-made design, frameworks are not meant to be used out of the box.  They form a basis on which to add your design.  As a general rule, the more design features a theme has to offer, the more restrictive it will be to add design features that are not in the package.  Similarly, because a framework forms a base meant for added design it is infinitely more customizable than a full featured theme.

As a web designer and developer I always prefer working with frameworks as opposed to a theme.  In the long run it is much more flexible and productive.  Frameworks are also accessible to the DIY web developer. They each just have a learning curve that is most of the time, worth it.  It typically requires less PHP, HTML, CSS and JavaScript knowledge than customizing a theme. Once past the learning curve you can more easily give your site its unique personality.

Frameworks are often called themes, even by the framework developers, perhaps because they compete in the same market.  To add to the confusion most frameworks have a foot in both camps.

Examples of excellent frameworks are:

  • Genesis by Studiopress (offers child themes)
  • Thesis by DIYThemes (Offers Skins that can be viewed as Themes)
  • Canvas by Woothemes (Comes preinstalled with default Theme)

Free does not always mean sub-standard

I was recently asked to make a site ‘mobile friendly’.  It was built on the free Twentyten theme offered by WordPress.org.  Not surprisingly, being over five years old, the Twentyten theme is not responsive but it had served the site owner well for all this time and there was no telling that it was a free theme.

As a test I installed twentysixteen and it worked functionally in every respect. It was fully responsive and apart from some obvious styling differences it was painless.  So instead of making the old site responsive I set out to customize the twentysixteen version to have the personality of the original site. 

For this I needed to look into the CSS and PHP of the theme.   I was very impressed with the quality of the code, the documentation and the attention to detail that lay beneath the covers of an ostensibly humble free theme. 

I learned some new CSS tricks from studying the code and was also pleased to find some modern fonts preloaded.

I highly recommend the twentyxx family of free WordPress themes over many commercial competitors.  It is a professionally built solid base to start from and it is as readily customizable than any other theme.  Why pay for an unknown entity when something like this is only a click away?

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