What is A WordPress Theme Framework? Do You Need One?

You probably know what a theme is. It is essentially the design of your WordPress site. It controls what your site looks like. OK, got…

You probably know what a theme is. It is essentially the design of your WordPress site. It controls what your site looks like. OK, got that part.

But, what about a theme framework? What the hell IS a theme framework? And, how is it any different than a regular theme?

I’m going to answer that in this post. And, in the process, maybe shed some light into why I decided to switch to a framework like Genesis from my custom theme I had been using for years.

Two Approaches To The Same Thing

You control what your blog looks like using a theme. And, you’ve got two different ways to approach that:

  1. Use a standard theme.
  2. Use a theme framework, often with a child theme.

A standard theme is where all the design components AND any programming necessary to power that design are all part of the same package. And, if you’ve got a custom theme, that means your theme probably uses some custom PHP programming to power certain things. It is all part of the theme, and all the files for it sit in a single folder.

With a standard theme, EVERYTHING that goes into making your blog look the way it does is all meshed together.

With a standard theme, EVERYTHING that goes into making your blog look the way it does is all meshed together.

A theme framework works a little differently. A framework essentially SEPARATES the bulk of the programming from the actual design. Almost all of the programming that makes the site do what it does is part of the framework, whereas the design itself contains only minimal programming in order to, essentially, turn features on and off in certain places. The design layer often comes in the form of a child theme.

A framework separates the programming from the design.

A framework separates the programming from the design.

Because the framework is a separate layer from the design, this means:

  • The framework is upgradeable without screwing up any customizations you’ve done to your design.
  • The framework usually comes with a bunch of capability built right-in. This means the designer can simply tap into those capabilities using MUCH shorter code, rather than re-inventing the wheel by having to custom code functionality right into the theme directly.

What This Means In The Real World

Most of the themes you’ll see out there for WordPress are just that – themes. Anything that makes that theme do what it does is baked right into the theme directly. Some of these themes have options panels where you can set things like logos, color options and things like that – but all that is just code baked into the theme. It isn’t a framework. If they ever update that theme to do cooler things and you’ve already customized your site, you would overwrite any work you did.

With a framework – especially the good ones – they’re often adding new capability to the framework over time. These capabilities make the design process easier and give you new capabilities that you may not have had before. And, being that it is a framework, you can slip in the upgrade and you WILL NOT screw up the design of your site or any customizations you made.

Also, when it comes to customization, working with frameworks is usually a LOT faster. As I said before, frameworks come with a lot of functionality baked right in – things that you’d have to code yourself if you were working with a single-layer theme. As a designer, you can simply tap into the framework.

If you’re used to doing things with standard themes, it will take a little getting used to working with a framework. It is a bit of a paradigm shift. But, once you get the hang of it, it is a LOT faster and you can implement great looking WordPress sites much faster using a framework.

And, as an end user, it makes things easier, too. For instance, what if you want a full-width page with no sidebar? If you aren’t using a framework, then you’d need to set up a custom page template. With a framework like Genesis, you just choose the full-width option as you make the page. No geekery required because that capability is built right into the framework.

Your Options

There are a lot of frameworks out there these days. I decided to go with Genesis, but there are many others such as Thesis, Catalyst, Carrington, etc. Even WooThemes is using their own framework called WooFramework.

I’m now recommending Genesis, as that’s what I chose personally and I only like to recommend those things I’ve tried myself. And, I think Genesis is fantastic.

Now, if you go with a free or cheap theme, chances are you won’t be using a framework. It will be a standard theme. Customizing it will be more difficult and you won’t be able to upgrade anything without a geek at your side. Even some of the nicer premium themes like those from Elegant Themes aren’t using a framework. They have an ePanel built in which gives you many options, but it isn’t a true framework.

If you’re serious about the foundation your blog is built on – and you want to make your life easier moving forward – I would recommend you select and use a theme framework.

One last thing to note…

If you’re thinking of switching to a framework, this doesn’t mean you have to change the look and feel of your site. Because design and code is much more separate when using a framework, you can make your site look like anything you want. If you want to keep your site the same as it is now but slip a framework in there, you can. You’d have to make a child theme which looks like your current blog, but you can do it.

M’kay?

If you have any questions, you can find me below in the comments section.

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About David Risley
David Risley is the founder of the Blog Marketing Academy, a 20-year veteran blogger and online entrepreneur. His focus? Building a reliable, recurring business around his "lifestyle" and the lives of his students. He has this weird obsession with traveling in his motorhome around the country with his wife and 2 kids. David also likes to talk about himself in the third person. In bios like this one. Read his full story.
  • Eric says:

    Informative article! Thanks for a share! Well, these above given website builders are worth. It mostly depends on the requirements of the users that which website creator or WordPress theme framework will be perfect. Personally, I’m using TemplateToaster. It has great features.

  • Victoria says:

    David, I would be curious in knowing how a product like

    http://themeforest.net/item/udesign-wordpress-theme/253220?ref=soland1234&ref=soland1234&clickthrough_id=188481328&redirect_back=true

    compares to these. Is it a framework or is it a theme as you are describing them above?

  • Kim Crayton says:

    I need to build a directory and the Vantage theme is the closest thing I’ve found that meets my needs. First is this a theme or framework? And if this is a theme how might I use this or a suggested framework to accomplish my goals?

  • mzemblow says:

    So far the best framework I used is Headway – just excellent!

    • David Risley says:

      Headway is nice for the right target market: people who can’t stand the idea of coding anything. And there are a lot of them. 🙂 Headway, though, is a little beefy in terms of code-base. At least last I looked at it.

  • One thing I’d like to add about frameworks, is that from a developer standpoint, if you are building your own themes you are far better off building your own framework and releasing your own themes as child themes for that framework. It keeps you from having to re-invent the wheel each time you build a new theme.

    That’s what we did for our crowdfunding framework, and it’s worked pretty well.

    • Sean Davis says:

      Bingo… I did the same thing recently with my new framework. I absolutely love using frameworks and agree with everything David said about them.

      The only thing I have to add is that frameworks, no matter how hard they try to be, are not one-size-fits-all. Most people don’t code so they make the framework fit their needs because they really don’t have a choice. Perhaps, some coders are too lazy to build their own and just keep using an existing one. And of course, a given framework just might be perfect for someone. But if it’s not, building your own is by far the best choice. I build child themes in no time and if I discover a flaw or lack of functionality in the framework, I fix it and never look back. 🙂

      None of my sites will ever run another framework again except for my own.

      • David Risley says:

        Ah, very cool. I seem to remember you talking about your framework on Facebook. Would be interested to see what you’re doing on that front. 🙂

    • David Risley says:

      Cool. Yeah, if I were in the theme business, I’d roll my own, too.

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