This article was originally written in 2020. Since then, the world of WordPress themes have definitely shifted. Plus, I use different software now. I have updated this guide to reflect where things are today. I do my best to simplify things and, of course, provide my top recommendations as of today.
In This Post…
When you’re setting up your blog, one of the first decisions you will make is to choose your WordPress theme. And I want to help make your job simpler.
I want to give you a kind of buyer’s guide. I want to arm you with some information that will allow you to make a smart decision for you.
I also don’t want you to be boxed in by your theme or feel like you need to run out and hire a developer to customize or tweak your theme for you. It’s never fun to feel like you’re in a jam like that and I want you to be able to be self reliant.
It isn’t as simple as simply finding some theme you like the look of. You need to think ahead a bit. You need to take some things into consideration.
Common WordPress Theme Terms… Defined
As you look around for themes for your site, you’re going to see some common terminology. Let me explain them in plain English.
- Wordpress Theme: The theme is essentially the design of your blog. It is a skin. You can have several themes installed to your blog, but only one active at a time. And it will control the look and feel of your blog and what it looks like to your visitors. A theme consists of a bunch of files, images and stylesheets that together control how your site looks and what is output.
- Child Theme: OK, let’s say you have a theme active on your blog that was developed by another developer. And that developer occasionally releases updates and fixes to that theme. If you make any customizations to the theme, they would be overwritten every time you upgraded. So, a child theme is a sub-theme that will derive all of the look and feel of your main theme, but layer over top of it some additional edits. You can make as many edits as you want to your child theme without risk of losing anything, but it will give you the ability to upgrade the main theme whenever there are updates.
- Theme Framework: A framework is a set of functions and options used by a developer in order to extend what Wordpress does and power a theme. Often, a framework will provide some customizations and shortcuts that a developer can then use to create a really nice child theme in a convenient way.
- Plugin: A plugin is a piece of software that you can tack onto Wordpress to give it additional functionality. Plugins have a variety of purposes. Some are simple… others quite involved. Some are free, others are not. While some plugins can do various things to alter the look and feel of your site, it is still your theme that has primary control.
- Stylesheet: This is a file that controls the colors, fonts and most other visual settings of your site. It is built with a language called CSS (cascading stylesheets) which your browser understands. In most cases, modifying colors, fonts and other things require editing the stylesheet that came with your theme. In some cases, this requires manual editing of CSS files. In most modern themes, this can be customized within WordPress.
- Page Builder. A page builder is an add-on plugin that provides a visual interface to design pages and even your entire theme without knowing any code. Generally speaking, the output of a page builder will override the theme.
- Block Editor (or Gutenberg). This is the current default editor built into WordPress. In essence, it is like a page builder except that it is built in and not an add-on. By default, you will write your pages and posts using the block builder, although you can use it to design any kind of site you want using plugins that add custom blocks to the editor.
Where Do You Find WordPress Themes?
To put it bluntly, there are themes everywhere. So many that it makes choosing one difficult.
Perhaps the most direct approach is right inside WordPress itself. Go to Appearance > Themes > Add New and you will be able to browse the WordPress theme repository right from within WordPress.
You can preview any theme right from inside WordPress. If you like it, you can hit the Install button and download the theme right into your WordPress for free. Then, activate it and your site instantly changes.
Now, all of the themes available directly within WordPress are free. And there are many of them to choose from. The WordPress theme library also lists out a bunch of commercial themes if you want to check those out, too.
Now, there are also numerous theme libraries that are not found directly within WordPress or on the WordPress website. There is quite the economy centered around WordPress themes, so there are many options to choose from. Here are a few of them:
In addition to some of these sites that serve as central hubs for themes, you’ve got a lot of themes available out there on a more individual basis. Some of them are built for more specific purposes (which we will cover more below).
So, obviously, throwing you into the deep end to choose a theme in these massive libraries isn’t very helpful. So, let’s dive deeper into some of the considerations…
Free Theme Or A Paid Theme?
OK, so let’s be real. You probably expect me to say that paid is better. And you are correct. 🙂 But, let’s be clear as to why that is.
- Easy to find
- Easy to install (often right all right inside WordPress)
- Updates might not be readily available
- Coding quality varies widely
- Often there are LOTS of sites using the same theme, without any changes.
- Possibility of malicious code being embedded.
- Usually download separately and install
- Support readily available, but usually for a set term (unless you renew)
- Coding quality usually very professional
- Usually more optimized for speed, SEO, and other factors
- Usually far more customization options built into the theme without the need for developers
- Much less likely to contain malicious code. Bugs fixed rapidly.
I would say it depends on your needs. If your blog is more or less for fun and you’re not overly concerned about what happens, then a free theme makes perfect sense.
However, if you’re looking to build a real business out of this, then I wouldn’t waste any time with a freebie. Commercial themes will provide the support you need and the options will be far more plentiful.
In the end, you get what you pay for. And, why would anybody spend much time coding a gorgeous theme that is well coded and has a lot of expandability? It takes a lot of time to do something like that. Why would they be expected to simply give it away without any thought of a return on their time?
This simple checklist is a list of items to go over and evaluate for your blog design. To see if your blog is optimized fully for maximum traffic and conversion.
This simple checklist contains 70 different items to look at and evaluate fairly about your own blog. Sometimes there’s no exact right or wrong answer, but it is always much better to look at it with fresh eyes.
Layout goes a long way to your traffic & conversion. See where your’s stands.
Do You Need A Purpose-Built Theme?
When it comes to straight blogging, pretty much all themes do that just fine. It is your standard homepage, page template, blog index page, and blog post template. Pretty much all themes have this.
But, WordPress can support a wide variety of sites. It is insanely customizable. For instance:
- Do you need a site to show real estate listings? There are numerous options for real estate sites.
- Are you showing a portfolio? Photo library? There are a lot of photography themes. There are also a lot of portfolio themes if you’re running an agency or are a freelancer.
- Do you need to display online courses, therefore needing more of a e-learning platform with functionality for online courses? Yep, there are a bunch of those, too.
A simple look at a Google search predictions show that there are just a ton of options. A lot of blogs posts out there listing out purpose-built Wordpress themes for various types of sites.
So, it is important to think ahead on what you need on your site. A lot of themes are positioned for certain types of sites more out of marketing than anything else. What is most relevant, however, is if you need the site to have certain features that are not normal.
Since a theme is more than just design, it may bring in certain custom features as well. For instance, activating a theme may enable certain functions, or create certain custom post types. There are other ways to go about this, of course. But, a theme can be more than just design.
For instance, Memberoni is a theme specifically for membership sites. It is available as a bonus to members of The Member Site Academy The theme itself is pretty basic, however it has functionality built into it specifically for memberships and online courses. For instance, the ability to allow members to check off a course lesson when completed. I used to use Memberoni and it is indeed a nice option for membership sites.
But, I moved on. 🙂
The Problem With Many Themes
Regardless of the theme you choose, you’re going to run into the next problem: How to customize it.
Truth is, most themes are kinda difficult to customize if you don’t have some coding chops. And most people who use WordPress are not skilled at PHP coding and web development. So, they are faced with some options:
- Just accept whatever the theme looks like “out of the box”.
- Try to tack on all kinds of plug-ins to change things in weird, round-about ways
- Look into hiring somebody to either tweak the theme or design one specifically for you.
Most freebie themes are not very well set up for the average joe to take full control over the look and feel of the site. Some themes have options panels that allow you to make changes, but then you’re limited to the options they give you.
Numerous options are provided allowing you to take quite a bit of control over the look and feel of the blog, but without the need to dive directly into the code itself. This is very convenient. We’ll go over some of these options below.
Some theme frameworks have add-ons that allow a non-coder to make changes. For instance, StudioPress is great for developers who want to customize things, but not so great if you’re not a programmer. However, there are add-ons like Design Palette Pro that allows non-coders to make some changes.
Of course, if you have some coding skills, you can always get your feet wet and customize your theme and your stylesheets on your own. Being that WordPress is open source and used on so many sites, it is incredibly well documented. They’ve got an entire Theme Handbook online that documents every last line of code and customization of a Wordpress theme.
As you would expect, if you want to really dive into some detailed customization of your theme, with unique needs, then eventually you will come down to having a developer make some changes for you.
If you need to go that route, I would recommend starting with a theme that gives you a solid head start to what you want to achieve, then providing your developer very specific instructions on what you want done.
Some developers will try to take advantage of your lack of knowledge and sell you services you don’t need, or try to give you the impression that it is a really big deal to do something but it is actually fast and easy.
There is another option, though. One that I personally prefer and would recommend to most people.
These are themes and editors that are specifically built to allow anybody to take full control and edit their own site, almost exclusively using drag-and-drop tools and “what you see is what you get” editing.
Need some no-BS technical consultation or direct tech help with your theme, but don’t know who you can trust to do it? Perhaps we can help you right here.
Using A WordPress Page Builder
Let me be clear…
I know how to code. I have a long background in web development and I know how to build sites from scratch. But, I’m also a fan of speed and convenience. And using a good page builder to visually build your site’s theme can make a lot of sense.
Purists who know how to code may argue against page builders. They will say that they produce bloated code and that you can have a faster, more streamlined site if you hand-code your theme in the most efficient possible way. To be clear, they’re not wrong. That said, most of these people don’t run real businesses. In a business, speed of execution is important. And you can build a site far faster with a visual builder than you can by hand-coding it. Then, use your saved time to go make money.
I am a big fan of using page builders. It is a massive time saver. It isn’t always the best way (and I’ll cover that more below), but page builders are powerful and enable building awesome WordPress sites without knowing how to code.
Some of the most popular options out there right now are:
- Thrive Theme Builder + Architect. A powerful option that I used personally for a long time.
- Elementor. You can literally build your whole site with Elementor. Combine it with the Hello Theme as a starting point and just use Elementor to build it all. Powerful and has a lot of add-ons available.
- Divi (by Elegant Themes). Also very powerful. I’m not a big fan of it just because I don’t like the way it works, but there’s no arguing it’s power and flexibility.
- Beaver Builder
- Bricks Builder. . I’ve hearfd great things about Bricks. It is supposed to be quite streamlined and make fast sites. I don’t (yet) have any personal experience with it.
When you are using a theme builder or page builder, then what you have “out of the box” is merely a suggestion. Because, you can easily customize and tailor every single element of your page on your own. Without needing to hire a developer or a designer.
The way it usually works is that the theme is essentially a framework for the global elements of your site. But, dig one level down and pretty every other element of the page or blog post can be customized using the built-in tools of the editor.
One thing to keep in mind, too, is that you can use a page builder as a plugin to override your theme. This means you can pick a theme you like, but override and customize aspects of it using your page builder. Elementor has a built-in theme builder which will allow you to build your own templates for any aspects of your site. This means you can defer to your selected theme for most of the site, but use Elementor to build special customized templates for various aspects of it that you don’t like.
Using A Block-Based Theme
Using a theme with a page builder is pretty user-friendly in many cases. However, that whole nerd argument that it usually produces “bloated” code is true.
Not only that, but a page builder is not “native” WordPress. A page builder is basically a layer which sits over top the theme. For a variety of reasons, a site built with a page builder can be slower and have lower performance scores. This is not a hard rule as there are definitely things you can do to optimize a page builder site to get great performance scores, but it could end up being an issue.
WordPress itself has evolved quite a bit since the days where themes were mostly PHP you had to modify yourself. In essence, WordPress has a page builder built right into it now. That builder is called the block editor, code-named Gutenburg.
When you are writing posts and pages in WordPress, you are using the block builder. But, WordPress is moving toward full-site editing with blocks. And there are numerous theme and plugins that are built to be built with the block builder. These themes have a lot of visual options controlled via the built-in theme Customizer, but then you can use plugins to build custom pages using blocks.
Some of the more popular options are:
- Astra Theme. Probably the most popular such theme. Often used alongside the Spectra plugin which adds blocks to Gutenberg that allow you to design almost any kind of page.
- Kadence Theme. This is what I use personally on my own sites and many of my clients. Combined with Kadence Blocks, you can build any kind of site easily and visually.
Using a block-based theme is almost always going to be better for site performance than building with a page builder. I certainly saw radically improved site performance scores when I switched to Kadence.
These themes are great, too, in that you don’t have to just accept what it looks like “out of the box”. You can turn these themes into almost anything you want – almost always without needing a developer. Sure, there’s a learning curve, but that’s the case with any piece of software.
The Theme(s) That I Recommend
So far, I’ve basically presented you with your options. And there are a lot of them. It can be quite overwhelming. So, let me just spell out for you what I recommend.
For most sites, I would recommend either Astra or Kadence. Personally, I am a fan of Kadence. I think a block-based theme can be molded into anything you want. Plus, it is “native” to WordPress and you’re always going to get your fastest performance that way.
Whether you are just building a simple blog or a full-blown membership site, Kadence can work nicely for you. You can find the Kadence Theme for free in the theme library. There’s also a free version of Kadence Blocks you can use to add additional blocks to Gutenburg to build your site. To take it up a notch, you can get the PRO version which will add enhanced capability to both the theme and the blocks builder.
Kadence also has a nice library of starter themes you can import as a starting point and then modify to your liking.
If you are looking to start a full blown membership site with a built-in community (like groups, forums, member profiles, etc.), then take a look at BuddyBoss and the BuddyBoss Theme. In the past, I have called it the “perfect membership site theme” and in many ways it is. That said, I would not recommend it unless you were intending to use the community functions of BuddyBoss.
For a long time, I recommended Thrive Theme Builder. To be clear, it is still a solid option. But, there’s no doubt that it doesn’t perform as well as Kadence or any block-based theme. Thrive Theme Builder, though, remains an excellent option if you want full visual building and intend to use other Thrive Themes plugins from the Thrive Suite.
These days, I mostly recommend and use Kadence. In the case that I need or want a page builder, I use Elementor. Between these tools, you can build any kind of site you want.
Final Words On Selecting A Theme
In the end, a decision must be made. And it isn’t one that I think you should spend an inordinate amount of time on.
Remember, themes are changeable. You’re never “stuck” with one.
To be clear, some themes and page builders are harder to change than others. With many page builders, if you deactivate them down the road to switch to something else, you can really break your site. At the least, things will look horrible.
My recommendation, generally, is to use a theme and builder based on the native block builder. This is much more future-proof since this is the direction of the WordPress core product. Page builders are inherently an extra layer.
But, all in all, anything is changeable. I’ve done many site theme transitions for people. In the end, anything can be done.
So, pick a theme that works for you and is future-proof so that you can make design changes without having to change out the underlying software. This will give you the most flexibility moving forward.
Got A Question? Need Some Assistance?
Have a question about this article? Need some help with this topic (or anything else)? Send it in and I’ll get back to you personally. If you’re OK with it, I might even use it as the basis of future content so I can make this site most useful.