As briefly touched upon in Multisite themes management, themes determine the look and basic function of your site. In theory, you can change the theme as you please without messing with the site’s content. However, themes are often controlling more than just the presentation of content – they can have a major impact on the usability of a website. Hence, in practice, (unexpected) things will happen if you switch. In particular, you may need to reconfigure menus and widget settings. In addition, any feature that is specific to that theme will be lost during the process.
There is a plethora of themes that you can choose from – one of the strength of using WordPress as a CMS platform. While some may embrace profusion, too many choices can become a paralyzing problem. With more than 7000 themes available in the WordPress Theme Directory alone, choosing a theme is more overwhelming than fun. So, how to choose the most appropriate theme for your site?
First thing first: define what your site is about.
Themes do a lot more than defining the color scheme of your website. A theme controls the layout – i.e. how your content is displayed – and, for this reason, it should complement the content of your site. As nicely expounded in this article, you should first define the purpose of your website, and
use themes to build the sorts of websites they were designed to build1.
Misapplying a theme is a recipe for frustration as you try to bend the theme to fit your vision – a vision it was never intended to fulfill.Jon Penland
As you may know by now (if you are following The CogitActive Saga), my website will be for my podcast. Of course a podcast consists first and foremost of audio files (see Where to start?). Although they should be hosted separately – i.e. not uploaded to the website – they are still embedded in the site. In addition, it is typical to provide show notes in order to enhance the listener experience. The good news is that there are themes built specifically for podcasters, some being available in the WordPress Theme Directory.
On the other hand, in essence, a website for a podcast is not different from a blog – a feature included right from start in most WordPress themes. Accordingly, any theme designed for blog should be a good fit; especially considering that, you should not select themes for specific features (other than those proposed in the abovementioned filters). In fact,
non-design related functionality is not allowed for the themes available in the WordPress Theme Directory. Hence, anything specific to podcasting (that goes beyond embedding audio files) should be added via plugins.
You should prefer themes that offer features powered by plugins. That way, if you ever have to switch themes, most features will remain functional.Jon Penland
What about the other sites, though? There is indeed this blog – Beyond – and the main website that should showcase CogitActive activities. While a blog theme seems the obvious choice for the former, the latter would definitively benefit from a business-oriented theme. Should I choose different themes or should I go for a multipurpose one? Opportunely, as stated in WordPress.com2, the so-called business themes include a blog as well.
WordPress business themes with professional designs for your company or organization: display contact info, feature your products or services, share testimonials, and engage customers with a blog.
Given the importance of choosing the right theme, it is not surprising to find many articles on the subject. From the
Do’s and Don’ts to
10 things to to
the ultimate guide, the recommendations are pretty much the same. Here is a quick summary:
Responsive: to support various types of devices (from computer to phones).
Browser compatibility: at least for most of the major browser platforms.
Performance: loading speed matters, so avoid bloated or poorly coded themes.
Regular updates: at least, to remain compatible with the latest version of WordPress.
Customizable: this can vary from basic adjustments through the WordPress Customizer to more advanced options such as theme frameworks.
Social media integration: from icons linking to your own profile to social sharing buttons.
Support & documentation: either directly from the developer or from the WordPress community.
Ratings & reviews: the higher the number of stars the better.
Disappointingly, these standards are rather useless when it comes to narrow down your choices. Price, on the other hand, can be a big inclusion (or exclusion) criteria.
Free versus Premium
Given that, most articles on how to choose the perfect theme are written by companies that create themes, I don’t need to make you a picture of what option – free or premium – is best. Add to that the bombardment with advertisements for Divi, and the next thing I knew is that I wanted a theme with an integrated3 page builder and all the bells and whistles. Then came budget considerations – paid option was not an option – and all of a sudden I felt like the milkmaid and her pail.
From interrupted daydreams of page builders to Gutenberg Phase 2
Page builders are drag and drop design tools (i.e. plugins created and supported by third-party developers) that allow creating completely custom website designs without writing any code. Even though Gutenberg (as introduced in WordPress 5.0) is a substantial leap forward in functionality, as for now,
it’s no match for the powerful page builder plugins4.
Indeed, it is not yet a page builder. However, the next phase of Gutenberg (phase 2) is to expand the use of blocks beyond post and page editing,
allowing editing and customizing the rest of a website in WordPress5.
We will expand the current Gutenberg post and page editor to become a full-fledged site editor, bringing everything together into a unified, modern product experience.Mel Choyce
Soon, Gutenberg will allow to
add blocks wherever you need them to go and see them previewed in context . . . making the web fully editable in a way that is powerful, flexible and accessible to everyone from beginners to experts5.
Back to the present and the harsh reality: free themes. Are they worth considering? Even though Cons are often emphasized, there are advantages of free themes beyond the cost. Of course, it all depends on the goal of your website. For instance, a blog that doesn’t require any complicated functionality would clearly benefit from free themes. First, they are relatively simple and easy to use right out of the box and help you get started more quickly. Moreover, they are perfect for creating basic sites as their minimalist design could improve speed. Last, but not least, according to many,
there are some high-quality free themes out there.
There are two kinds of people – those with a loaded budget, and those who use themes from the WordPress Theme Directory. I dig.
How to choose a free theme
Going through the Cons of free themes was actually useful in the sense that it helped narrow down my choices considerably. Let me walk you through my reasoning.
Beware the WordPress Theme Directory also contains freemium themes – a feature-poor option that will push you to upgrade. Although enticing, these free themes come with limited functionality (as compared to their premium version) and, eventually, you will be compelled to purchase the premium theme.
The official WordPress Theme Directory
The scariest Cons of free themes are the risks involved with their use. From malicious code to poorly coded themes, which could also make your site vulnerable to security issues, the dangers are real and not limited to pirated or hacked premium themes.
Here are some of the threats generally described:
- Hidden malware: virus, adware, Trojan, backdoor…
- Encrypted spammy links
- Unwanted footer backlinks
- Security vulnerabilities
However, the solution is as easy as choosing a theme from a reputable source! For that matter, the best and safest place to look for free themes is the WordPress Theme Directory through either the wordpress.org website or the dashboard using the automated Theme installer (see Multisite themes management).
WordPress developers have reviewed all the themes (to ensure they do not contain any malicious code among other things) and tested them against the latest coding standards. In fact,
before a free theme enters the WordPress repository, it has been comprehensively checked for a number of issues6 listed in the table below.
|Privacy||Core functionality and features||Code|
|Naming||Presentation and functionality||Plugins|
|Screenshots||Options and Settings||Accessibility|
|Language||Selling, credits, and links||Documentation|
|Templates||Stylesheets and scripts||Licensing|
As stated in the introduction, there are still more than 7000 themes available in the WordPress Theme Directory. Back to square one: how to narrow down the list?
Let me continue with the Cons of free themes. The usual suspects, namely the other disadvantages of using a free theme, are:
- Not, or rarely, updated or even likely to be abandoned
- Limited support and documentation
- Limited features and customization
- Designed to be purposely difficult to modify
Clearly, a theme MUST be constantly updated to not leave room for security breaches and ensure it is compatible with the latest WordPress version. This a primary concern when it comes to security, but there are other incentive as well (see Updates & Upgrade Network).
This issue alone should be a big no-no against free themes. Add to that the other items on the above list, as well as those mentioned earlier (i.e. important criteria) – being responsive, in particular – and you may abandon the quest for a high-quality free theme altogether. Unless…
If only there was a guarantee that a free theme will not be abandoned anytime soon and will be updated regularly (at least with each new WordPress release). That it would come with some documentation, tutorials and community support. A theme that would showcase the features of WordPress and be flexible enough to gracefully support child themes and encourage customization. It may as well be from the developers behind WordPress…
Introducing the default themes “by WordPress.org”!
Actually, they don’t need any introduction. They (at least the three most recent) come bundled with each installation of WordPress. Not only they work flawlessly out of the box, but also they are generally featured rich and can be used to create most basic websites. They represent the best in coding practices and technological excellence (at least for free themes). Finally, to answer the last critics not yet mentioned – most free themes look old7 – a new default theme with a pleasing aesthetic is released (almost) every year since 2010.
So, how did I choose my theme?
I wanted to get this blog running as quickly as possible in order to recount my podcasting adventure (almost) in real time. To be honest, I didn’t bother to dig the WordPress Theme Directory for the perfect theme nor did I scrutinize the 10 default WordPress themes (there are 11 now). I was fortunate enough to arrive after the release of Twenty Seventeen – an outstanding theme that departs from its predecessors with its business focus.
Rather than focusing on either making a theme for blogs or making a theme for corporates sites, Twenty Seventeen decided to both – and pulls it off with flair. Good use of settings in the customizer, nicely laid out page templates and fantastic use of the typeface Franklin Gothic makes Twenty Seventeen a theme that puts most premium themes to shame.WP Glossary
Marketed as a business site theme, Twenty Seventeen is indeed optimal for more than just blogging. In fact, its sleek and contemporary design marks a noteworthy departure from its blog-centric predecessors. Clearly, the layouts and features it provides fully reflects WordPress transition from its blogging roots into a CMS platform well suited to creating all sorts of websites. In addition, Twenty Seventeen is highly customizable and comes with improved child theme functionality. As such, it is a great theme for experimentation.
Strictly speaking, I didn’t choose my theme. I decided to stick with the theme active by default, namely Twenty Seventeen.
1 Jon Penland (2019) How to Pick the Perfect WordPress Theme. Wpmudev. ^
2 Keep in mind that the themes “by the WordPress team” (in WordPress.com) will not be exactly the same as their counterpart offered “by WordPress.org” (in WordPress.org). In particular, they include features, as well as built-in plugins, that will not be available in the .org equivalent theme. In keeping with differences between both theme directories, there are only 9 subjects to choose from in the filter of the .org (and business is not one of the options) versus 26 in the .com theme directory. ^
3 Page builders are plugins, and as such, could be standalone (i.e. not committed to a theme). Nonetheless, they are often bundled with premium themes that are tightly integrated with the plugin. Understandably, if you have the theme, you don’t need to install the plugin. However, if you want to use another theme, and keep the builder features, you can use the plugin. In keeping with Divi as an example, the Divi builder is available in both the Divi theme and the Divi plugin. ^
4 See Gutenberg vs WordPress Page Builders – What’s the Real Difference? ^
5 Mel Choyce (2018) Gutenberg Phase 2. ^
6 Maddy Osman (2019) WordPress free vs paid themes: which is right for your next project? Kinsta. ^
7 If you want to check the veracity of this statement, you may consider browsing the Free WordPress Themes Gallery of SiteGround. You will also realize how founded are most of the critics against free themes. ^