Choosing a theme is probably one of the most important decisions you’ll make about your website. Most of the time when people search for themes, they’re focused on how it looks. And while that’s important, you also want to think about what features you’ll need both in the short and the long term, as your site grows.
Know before you go looking
- What is the purpose of your site?
- How does it fit into your marketing strategy? A simple blog will have different needs from a non-profit, which will have different needs than an e-commerce site, or a membership site.
- What do you want your visitors to learn about you and/or your company?
- What do you want your visitors to do?
- Do you need a home page that is a different layout from the blog pages?
- Do you need to create landing pages?
- Are you creating a membership site?
- Do you need to integrate with other software or services? Examples: Email marketing software like Mailchimp, or Active Campaign, e-commerce services like Shopify or Cart66, social media platforms etc.
- Will you be managing the site yourself or hiring a developer or designer to help?
- Do you need to be able to alter the layout without coding?
- What content do you need to display? Make a list of all the different types of pages you’ll need and sketch out how you think the content will layout. Examples include: home page, blog landing page, single blog post, product page, photo gallery, landing page etc.
Whew! So much to think about and you haven’t even looked at any themes! But doing this work ahead of time will help keep you greatly when narrowing down the thousands of WordPress themes available.
Are you a writer who hardly ever uses images? Back away from that gorgeous photography theme. Do you sell physical goods that you want to display online? Choose a theme that will make your images pop and then make sure your photos are high quality.
I hope you’re getting the idea that even though you’re choosing something which is pre-made, you don’t want to be like Cinderella’s step-sisters, trying to shoehorn yourself into a theme that just doesn’t fit.
When you choose a theme, you’re also choosing a developer
Themes are created by designers and developers. Sometimes it’s one person, sometimes it’s a company with a whole team of people. Whichever the case, you want to know that if you pay money for a theme (which I think you should), the developer is going to reliably support and update the theme.
For this reason, I don’t generally recommend Theme Forest as a place to look for themes. Quality and theme support can vary drastically and I prefer to have a more direct connection with the theme creator.
I also look for themes that are built ‘the WordPress Way.’ This means they create their themes in a way that is highly compatible with WordPress core and follows best practices for extending the theme features such as the Customizer which lets you easily change fonts and colors for your entire site.
The farther you stray from WordPress standards, the more trouble you will have if you decide to change your theme down the line.
Here are a few theme companies I trust and recommend. I’ve either used them myself, or they have a years-long, rock solid reputation in the WordPress eco-system.
Themes for personal use
A disclaimer: you can use any theme for business or personal use, but if you’re not concerned about marketing and integrations– i.e. you just want something that looks nice and is easy to use, these themes will definitely work well.
I stumbled onto ThemeHybrid when I became bored with the look of my personal blog and wanted to change it up. The themes are free, but they offer paid memberships if you want to join the support forums and get access to more tutorials. kronda.com is built on the Stargazer theme.
I needed a theme with a certain look to replace a client’s outdated and unsupported theme. ArrayThemes had what I was looking for, with the support to back it up. The theme transition was almost painless, thanks to a well structured and easy to use theme.
Carrie Dils: Utility Pro Theme
Carrie has been a freelance developer for over 10 years and is well known in WordPress circles. She builds Genesis-based themes and her blog is chock full of tons of great tips and tutorials on getting the most out of your Genesis theme.
She recently released the Utility Pro Theme. It’s a mobile-first, accessibility-minded theme with tons of features and customizing options without the bloat.
If accessibility is a top priority, it’s well worth checking out.
Themes for Business and Marketing
Genesis Themes from StudioPress
I think it’s fair to say that StudioPress is the Goliath when it comes to WordPress themes. They’ve created a framework called Genesis, that is the scaffolding for all their themes. Genesis is incredibly well made, clean and highly versatile. You can buy the framework on its own, or peruse the themes page and choose a design that suits your purpose.
If you have a marketing focus and want the power of Genesis but don’t want to set it up yourself, check out the Rainmaker platform, which is a hosted solution from StudioPress.
I’ve always loved Theme Foundry as a company. They do great work and many of their themes are featured on WordPress.com, which means they know and follow the strict coding standards set by the people who make WordPress.
If you’re really on a tight budget, check out their Make Theme, which is FREE (as in Open Source) and also features one of the first page builders I ever encountered that didn’t suck. Page builders allow you to easily create complex layouts on a per-page basis without any coding. In the past, this magic has come at a heavy price–it looks great while you’re using it, but if you turn it off, you’re left with a bunch of junk code in your text editor and have to spend hours digging out your content to switch to a different theme (I’m looking at you, Thesis).
The Make Theme is highly customizable. The site you’re reading right now is built on it as well as several client sites. Go ahead and see if you can tell which ones. 🙂
Page Builder Themes & Plugins
I mentioned page builders above and in the last year, the options have really matured. In addition to Theme Foundry’s Make theme, there are two other standouts in the page builder space.
Thrive Themes claim to fame is their focus on marketing. They build tools for people who are using WordPress to build a business and have a clearly defined strategy that involves building their audience and growing their customer base. This was a gaping hole that I’m happy to see filled.
In addition to fully designed themes, they offer tools designed to help you reach your end goal faster.
Thrive Content Builder Plugin is the next generation of page builders. It offers true edit-in-place design and editing functionality and you can easily drag simple or advanced page elements into your page and give them custom styles.
Thrive Landing Pages Plugin offers an ever growing library of tested landing page designs.
Thrive Leads Plugin allows you to build opt-in forms directly in WordPress. Connect the forms to your email service of choice. A/B test different forms and view the results right in your dashboard. Add the forms to landing pages, or directly into a blog post.
(See what I did there?)
If you want to build a marketing machine on your site quickly without resorting to services like Unbounce or Leadpages, ThriveThemes offers some pretty amazing tools that all work directly within WordPress.
I hate the name, but I love everything else about this page builder plugin. It’s highly flexible for building custom layouts. Beaver Builder lacks the variety and number of landing page templates that Thrive content builder has but it's much snappier to use. You can build your own page layouts and save them as templates. If you’re more of a DIY and prefer to build your own library of templates to reuse, Beaver Builder is an awesome tool for your toolbox. They continue to push out rapid improvements in the plugin.
Wrapping it all up…
Whether you're theme shopping for personal or business reasons, hopefully I've given you a framework and some useful direction for making this important decision. Nothing makes me sadder than when people come to me for help and I have to tell them it would be easier to rebuild their entire site than fix the ‘small problem' they originally presented.
Any of the companies and themes above will give you a solid foundation to build on.
Have a theme you love? Let me know in the comments.