Whether you’ve just decided to build your website on WordPress or you’re thinking of a redesign, you're probably trying to find your way around the different options out there. Multi-purpose themes, specialized themes, frameworks, custom themes: which one should you use? If you post a project on Codeable, one of our experts will guide you through these options and help you decide.

But if you haven't, let me try to shed some light on this topic.

At the time of writing this blog post, there are 7,283 themes on Themeforest, 4,080 on WordPress.org repository, 1,810 on TemplateMonster, 1,222 on MojoThemes and probably a couple more thousand from individual theme developers or marketplaces (such as ElegantThemes, StudioPress, WooThemes, Templatic, AppThemes, EngineThemes etc.). If we add them all up, we get a total of more than 15,000 WordPress themes, both free and commercial, to choose from.

Intimidating, right? So where do you start your search for a new WordPress theme, as going through all of them and checking out the demos sounds an insane thing to do?

The search process

You might think that you don’t care much about looks, you can go with a random theme and save yourself the trouble of doing exhaustive research. So you pick a theme and start adding content to it, and then set it up with widgets, and configure all the options. All is well until you run your first WordPress update and everything breaks.

From that moment on you start to look up Google to find a solution, hit the forums and find that your theme hasn't been updated in a while. Now, what? You're faced with two options: you could either pay a developer to fix it (or fix it yourself if you know your way around code) or find another theme and start all over again, wishing you'd have paid more attention to the theme selection process.

In order to avoid the pain and frustration of choosing the wrong theme, here's a breakdown of the search process I'd suggest to follow in the future.

How to search for a WordPress theme

  1. Think about the Features: decide what you want from your website. If you’re not sure about that, start by looking at your competitors’ websites or similar sites you like. Do you want to have a blog, a magazine, a presentation site for your medical practice / real estate agency / spa / construction company? Do you want to integrate online payments? Newsletter? Appointment booking feature? Event calendar? Write down the list of elements and features you'd need and keep it in front of you.

  2. Think about the Look: decide what type of design and aesthetics better represent your business/project. There are several options here like a clean, minimalist design, a classic look, a modern, high "techie" feel, a vintage style and the list goes on...

  3. Think about the Flexibility: do you want to be able to frequently change the look of your site, while adding new elements and blocks, without having to hire a developer? Then a multi-purpose theme might be the right choice for you. Do you want a clean, simple, clutter-free theme you don't plan to modify for quite some time? Then a Genesis theme looks like a good fit. Do you want a theme that provides a particular set of features, like real-estate listings or jobs listing and search, or auctioning? Then a specialized theme is your way to go. Do you want a theme with features that don't seem to be exactly covered by ready-made themes or with a bespoke design? Then go with a custom theme. If you don’t know what any of these are, bear with me, I’ll go through all of them in just a moment.

How to select a WordPress theme

Now you can start your research through some of the marketplaces I've mentioned above, following the criteria you’ve already decided on. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a shortlist, here are some must-haves for selecting the right candidate. Whether it’s a free or commercial theme, select a theme that's:

  1. Been around for a while, at least 1-2 years, so most of the bugs have already been fixed (or they're known at least). This way you don’t have to do all the testing and bug reporting: other users have already done that for you

  2. Frequently updated (at least a few times a year). This means there’s someone who still works on it

  3. Got good ratings and support questions answered promptly. This applies mostly to commercial themes because free themes don’t usually come with free support

  4. Gained enough popularity (either look at how many times it has been bought, if it’s a commercial theme, or check the number of downloads, if it’s a free one). Otherwise, if it fails to gain traction, it might be abandoned by the developer and you’ll find yourself with an unsupported theme that breaks at the next WordPress update

Need help deciding for your next WordPress website? Hire Eugenia Cosinschi and have her guide you through all the options that are a good fit for you!

Types of WordPress themes: Ready-made vs Custom

The world of themes can quite easily be split into two: on one side, you'll find off-the-shelf or ready-made themes; on the other, there are custom-coded themes. Let's look at both of them in detail.

Ready-made WordPress themes

As the name already suggests, these themes come with a given design, layout, and set of features when you buy them. Some of them allow for some customizations, such as picking colors for some elements, repositioning them, changing fonts, images, styles. Others offer fewer options but often also less unnecessary code and scripts, which results in better loading time and less room for bugs.

When ready-made themes might be a good option

  • You are on a tight budget. You don’t have the money (aka a few thousand dollars, to say the least) to hire a freelancer or an agency to build you a custom theme with a personalized design and you’d much rather spend only $50-$70 for a ready-made theme

  • You are pleased with the look of the theme and aren't interested in having a bespoke design, one that sets you apart from the crowd

  • You need to build a small/medium website with a standard structure and standard content types. Note: as your site grows in terms of structure, you might discover that a ready-made theme is not scalable enough and you'd find yourself tweaking it over and over again to address your needs

  • You can find your way around WordPress

Unlike the old days, when WordPress used to be just a blogging platform and themes were pretty basic, today's themes offer more options together with different types of features. This requires you to spend quite some time going through their long list of options, settings, widgets, and so on, to configure everything in order to get the desired look.

If you think you just need to activate a theme to have it like the demo, you'll be disappointed Click To Tweet

When ready-made themes might not be a good option

  • When you need to have a personalized design

  • When you have specific needs in terms of layout, features or design that are not handled by any of the ready-made themes. What does "specific needs" mean? Basically, having enough things that need to look and function differently from what you see in the demo. It might be a specific way of displaying, aligning and positioning elements, a special content type (like job listings, recipes, movie database and so on).

Ready-made themes fall into two distinct categories: a) Multi-purpose themes, which come bundled with different types of features, settings, and layout. The other category is represented by b) Specialized themes, which are specifically created for a particular niche - like restaurants, consultancies, real estate agencies, medical clinics etc. - and they provide features relevant to that niche.

Let's take a closer look at both of them.

a) WordPress multi-purpose themes

If you’ve been around WordPress for a while, you’ve probably already heard of themes like Avada, Enfold, Salient, Jupiter, Divi. They're multi-purpose themes, packed with all the modules, options and elements you could think of. They are highly versatile, offer tons of options in terms of layout, colors, fonts. They also have built-in sliders, mega menus, page builders etc.

When multi-purpose themes might be a good option

If you were to ask a "puritan" developer, the answer would be "Never!" :) Kidding aside, there are still some scenarios in which a multi-purpose theme is the right choice :

  • You want to be able to change your site frequently, add new content blocks and reposition them, change colors and so on. If that's your case, the flexibility offered by these themes might suit you well

  • You don't mind the bloat that comes with a multi-purpose theme in exchange for the versatility it offers

When multi-purpose themes might not be a good option

  • When you need a simple website, and you have no use for most (or any) of the built-in elements that come with a multi-purpose theme

  • When you find yourself lost with all the options and settings offered by a complex multi-purpose theme or if you have a hard time creating a functional template by using a drag-and-drop builder

b) WordPress specialized themes

Specialized themes are ready-made themes built to serve only one purpose. They could be recipe themes, job listing themes, eCommerce themes, real estate themes, photography themes, and the list can go on and on.

When specialized themes might be a good option

The same as with a multi-purpose theme, when a theme you've identified is a perfect match for your needs in terms of layout and features or requires minimal customizations.

When specialized themes might not be a good option

When you'd need specific features that aren't supported by the theme and, by adding them into the theme now, would change too much of the theme’s core, making it more cost-effective to go with a custom theme.

Now let's see the other main category of WordPress themes: WordPress custom themes.

WordPress custom themes

Built from scratch, tailored to fit your needs, with personalized design and zero clutter, these WordPress themes provide the elements and features that you actually need. Why wouldn't anyone want one of these then? Because they cost more. How much more? A commercial, ready-made theme is usually priced somewhere $50-$70, while a custom WordPress theme starts at $1,500-$2,000 at the very least.

And if the layout is complex, or you need a lot of different page templates and custom features, the price goes up.

So why is there such a huge difference between the two? It's easy: a commercial theme is sold to hundreds or even thousands of users as-is (with no customizations), while a custom theme is specifically built for a single client and sold one time.

But even with custom themes, there isn’t just one route to take. Specifically, you could either pick a starter theme and go from there or opt for a framework and build on top of that.

When working with Codeable experts, they will give you suggestions on what the best option is based on your needs, preferences and budget.

What's a WordPress starter theme?

A WordPress starter theme is a blank, naked theme that contains only the basics, the "skeleton" of a WordPress theme. Some of the most popular starter themes used by theme developers are Underscores (also known as _s), Bones, Roots.

Pros of starter themes

A starter theme is exactly what the name suggests. It's the starting point for developing your own theme by providing a solid code base with all the required page templates, optimized for web and WordPress standards, with minimal or no styling. Once you get started, you have full control of what you can do with your theme.

Cons of starter themes

The main drawback of using a starter theme is that you won’t be able to easily update its code base and you're left with two options: either have a developer to regularly maintain it or... not, and run the risk of breaking your site with a future update.

What's a theme framework?

Unlike starter themes, a theme framework contains more than just the skeleton: it provides some built-in options, some built-in SEO settings, some built-in elements, a little styling. A few of the most popular frameworks are Genesis, Cherry and a newcomer worth mentioning, Beans, developed by former Codeable developer Thierry Muller. Frameworks are meant to function as parent themes containing all the code base, while the child theme will hold the custom styling and features.

Pros of theme frameworks

A framework, as opposed to a starter theme, gives you greater head start in development, since a lot of features and styles are already built into the theme. You could even use one of the existing child themes as a starting point and save yourself a lot of work (and money).

Another big pro is that you can update its code base without losing any of the changes and edits because of the child-parent structure of the theme.

Cons of theme frameworks

A framework adds another layer of abstraction between your code and WordPress. So instead of directly modifying your template files, as with a starter theme, you'll find yourself doing all the changes through hooks and functions. Working with frameworks definitely requires some time to get used to them.

Another drawback is that you don’t have the same level of control as with a starter theme, you’ll be somewhat limited in the customizations allowed by the framework. I'm not saying there are things you won't be able to do with a framework, rather that they'd require extra work.

Wrapping it up

Finding the perfect WordPress theme for your business is far from being an easy task because there are so many elements to consider. In this article, I went through several key aspects that might help you with this important decision. I've listed and explained what the main types of WordPress themes are by providing a list of pros vs cons for each of them.

Next time you'd need a new WordPress theme, don't base your decision solely on how something looks or how little it costs. Try to understand what you really need, what your goals are and let these factors guide your choices, therefore preventing yourself from making what in the future might result in a poor business choice.

Need to create, tweak or fix your WordPress website? Hire Eugenia Cosinschi and let her take care of your issues!