How To Choose Your WordPress Theme: The Smart Way (Without Being Dependent On Developers)

Last Updated on March 24, 2020  

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 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. Simple as that.

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. A very popular framework is Genesis Framework (by Studiopress). Genesis is activated as the main theme, giving a default look to the site but providing a lot of powerful functionality. Then, there are a library of child themes available by Studiopress that sit on top of Genesis. Together, your child theme and your underlying framework control what the site looks like and empowers developers to customize theme to their wishes.

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.

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.

FREE THEMES:

  • 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.

COMMERCIAL THEMES:

  • 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?

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. This very site was originally based on Memberoni, however it has been so incredibly customized by this point that it is a new custom theme. (Not available for download, so don't ask 😉 ).

The Problem With Most 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 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. For instance, here is the options panel for a Thrive Themes theme:

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.

Some theme frameworks have add-ons that allow a non-coder to make changes. For instance, StudioPress is pretty popular with bloggers. 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.

Using a page builder or a theme builder.

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.

Why I Believe You Need 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. In fact, this very site was custom-coded by your's truly and is heavily customized. That said...

I am a massive fan of using page builders. It is a massive time saver. In fact, I'm writing this very blog post with Thrive Architect.

I think that drag-and-drop builders are the best option for most people. Some of the most popular options out there right now are:

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.

For instance, here's one of my blog content silo pages that I built with Thrive Architect. You can see the available tools to the right. On the left are the contextual settings. I can click on any element of the page to select it then customize it using the interface and SEE the changes in real-time so I know exactly what it will look like on the live site.

The Theme That I Recommend

I am a heavy user of the following combo: Thrive Theme Builder + Thrive Architect. In fact, this very site is built on it.

The theme that I recommend for most of you is Thrive Theme Builder. This theme is more of a theme building framework. The default theme that comes with Theme Builder is called ShapeShift. And, using the platform, you can customize and mold ShapeShift into anything you want - all without having to manually code anything.

In fact, this very site is running on Theme Builder - and this theme started off as ShapeShift.

It is literally like a chameleon. It can turn into anything. And for that reason, I highly recommend that you choose the Thrive Theme Builder as your theme.

It is one, universal theme that you can turn into your own.

You can read more about my Theme Builder experience here and here.

Click here to read my full review of Thrive Themes.

also...

If you purchase Thrive Themes via our affiliate link, I will hook you up (for free) with our training course inside THE LAB: Over The Shoulder With Thrive Themes. In this training, I show you the in's and out's of Architect, including some nifty tricks.

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.

If you have a special-purpose site (like online courses or other special needs beyond a normal blog), then you should probably find a theme built for that purpose as a shortcut. Then, add a page builder to allow you to taker further control without the frustration.

If you mainly need a nice looking site, optimized for list building, and most of the content will be standard blog posts... then I recommend you choose a simple theme and then customize the site with a page builder.

To be clear, my official recommendation is to use Thrive Theme Builder. You can turn it into any theme you want. No longer do you need to find a theme you like the look of. With Theme Builder, you can do anything you want. This site runs on Thrive Theme Builder and I highly recommend it.

I use Thrive Architect a LOT around here. My homepage, all my core pages, all my landing pages, all built with Thrive Architect. This very blog post is being written with Thrive Architect.

This combination works very well for me.

And even though my core business here is a membership site, I keep that on a sub-domain and an entirely different installation of WordPress (this post explains why). Which means THE LAB can be customized toward the special needs of a membership site, therefore allowing the public blog to be lightweight and easier to manage.

And yes, Thrive Architect is used for many pages inside THE LAB, too. 🙂 What can I say... it's handy and a time saver.

Whether you ultimately choose to use Thrive Architect or not, that's your call. I think you could be equally happy with Elementor, Divi, or any of the others. There's also a matter of personal preference involved here. But, irregardless, I think a page builder is the way to go these days for most people.

Need Additional Support?

Feel free to ask questions below in the comments and I'll try to answer back.

If you are a LAB member, you have additional support options such as the ability to get more direct feedback from me in the LAB Community, an Office Hours call, or via a private request.

If you would like us to get in there and just take care of some of the setup stuff for you, click here for info. Discounted options are available to LAB members.

Lastly...

If you purchase Thrive Themes via our affiliate link, I will hook you up (for free) with our training course inside THE LAB: Over The Shoulder With Thrive Themes. In this training, I show you the in's and out's of Architect, including some nifty tricks.

When you purchase a Thrive Themes membership, you also get access to Thrive Theme Builder and every other tool they offer. It is an incredible value.


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  • Why wasn’t OptimizePress considered in this lineup? Isn’t it a page builder too with drag-drop capabilities?

    • David Risley says:

      I am planning to take a fresh look at OptimizePress. I just can’t do it all simultaneously. 🙂 But, last I used OP, it was version 2. It has developed a lot since then, and I haven’t used it in awhile.

  • An outstanding and much needed article, David! I wish you had written this before I joined the Academy! So many people promote the idea that all you need to do is throw up a website and you’re in business. Not true, as you point out in this article.

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