Choosing a Great WordPress Theme

Helping clients plan to get the best out of their WordPress sites is something that I really enjoy.

Having a theme library loaded and switching between them for instant changes to “the look and feel” is a fun moment in the discovery planning process.

For non – WordPress users a Theme is effectively a website design “skin” that overlays the content. It works by providing a filtered view of the text (XML) content.

For more technical users we are talking about combination of stylesheet (CSS) and some core function code (pages, posts, comments) which is written in PHP.

At the visual level this is fairly easy. For example if the client has an existing site structure we would look to match the colours, and general look and feel with a similar theme that has 1 , 2 or 3 columns. We may be also looking for menu layouts, header functions, plus sidebar and footer configurations.

Part of this is to understand the branding context and also if there is an existing format whether that should be kept if if there is a more optimal layout.

What we would then do is match fonts, include branded headers and other brand ID assets on a theme that was as close as possible but sometimes it can be quicker to build a new theme that to find one that matches up.

Way back in ’97 there was programme called Net Objects which did something similar in packaging various components together with a set of styles and saved all of the information into an object called a NOD probably some kind of early XML file.

The great thing about that programme was the user interface for applying “styles” really simplified the menu and navigation processes by including all the image icons and button type files along with it.  I used that for many years for fast prototyping of sites and to replace PowerPoint for presentations as it was faster and easier.

Fast forward 9 years to 2006 – WordPress was coming of age with newer more visual releases although from memory I think that Joomla had a bigger range of theme like styles at the time.

But by late 2006 when I started this blog there were some great themes around for WordPress and having used lots of content management systems before I was ready to try something a bit more open ended.

Where to Search for WordPress Themes?

The best place to start is WordPress.org theme library. This is because the 800+ themes there have been sorted into some kind of taxonomy and at least partly vetted by WordPress developers and enthusiasts. This is important for two reasons.

  1. Some themes have hidden code in them which might be advertising or worse. See the theme authors guidelines which aims to prevent  “hidden, paid or sponsored links in the theme. Links back to the author’s site are fine.”
  2. More importantly this library provides a structure for searching where you can filter searches by types such as fixed or variable width, number of columns, main colour, features and subject which are called theme tags.

This generally provides a  range of visual templates and ideas for a wider search in other theme libraries.

In the past the searches haven’t been very precise possibly because some of these tag and taxonomy rules haven’t been fully applied and because some theme authors game the system by loading up on the equivalent of all possible keywords.

Frameworks and Coding Considerations

Having worked with dozens of themes now it is clear that under the skin many of them can be traced back to earlier building block models or frameworks.

Every install of WordPress comes with a default theme sometimes called Kubrick and that one along with K2 and others. More recent core themes are Carrington, Thematic and Sandbox.

Thematic  describes its Theme as

“a free, open-source, highly extensible, search-engine optimized WordPress Theme Framework featuring 13 widget-ready areas, grid-based layout samples, styling for popular plugins, and a whole community behind it.”

Another excellent theme  is Thesis. One of the first serious themes that I learned from was Chris Peasons Cutline series.

As Chris puts it- here are 5 more reasons to look deeper into the code and overall framework of each theme to save hassle later on.

“As a serial site developer and blogger, I’ve found that the most valuable tool one can have is a refined template system that solves fundamental development, design, and publishing problems, including:

  1. SEO and careful attention to in-site link equity
  2. an “em” -based approach to element sizing (pixels are nice, but “ems” are by far the most accessible – and therefore the best – choice)
  3. polished typography with finely-tuned geometrics for maximum legibility
  4. an aesthetically pleasing layout that favors usability and clarity over extravagant presentation
  5. forward-compatibility (I like to call it futureproofing)”

Put more simply – picking a great theme now which has “good bones”and optimal features can save a lot of time later on. Some themes come paired with a series of plugins for say featured content and a number of themes come as a kind of half-way house with extensive theme options for those not so comfortable with stylesheets.

Theme options allow user to make changes to a style at a higher level by ticking an options or using other present menu re-combinations to make changes without needing to ever see the CSS code.

An example of this approach would be something like the Atahualpa which come with something like 300 “theme options” and personally a style sheet looks easy after that.

It is described as follows and the links below are tags that can be used for searching.

“Version 3.4 – Atahualpa is a WordPress/PHP/CSS Framework that lets you build your own unique, professional and browser-safe WordPress theme: 1-5 columns, fluid or fixed width, rotating header images and over 200 theme options. Tutorials, downloads and support at the BFA WP Forum

StudioPress Themes offer another approach where a set of plugins have been pre bundled with a theme and page templates are somewhere closer to a magazine style format.

Magazine syle themes generally have a larger number of columns like a newspaper and would tend to have a category menu as well as featured content sections and even special video or audio panels.

In summary most clients start out looking for a particular look and feel but there are other more practical considerations which could benefit them by saving time and money if the selection criteria is deepened.

As a WordPress practitioner I would steer clients towards some of the other functional considerations like “does it play nice with key plugins ?” and is the structure fully transparent and robust for scaling up and working with other applications which will be the next frontier.

There are other considerations but perhaps you can write in with your comments and questions on what you think are most important when choosing a great WordPress Theme.