If you are new to WordPress, your first task is selecting a theme. There are literally tens of thousands that are available. How do you get started?
Your WordPress site already has a theme installed, most likely a default WordPress theme, like Twenty Fourteen (they come out with a new one each year). If you look in the WordPress admin under Appearance > Themes you probably will see other themes installed. To see how a theme looks, simply click “Activate”. Your site now might look very different and might be missing elements from your previous theme. But, not to worry, re-activate your original theme and nothing will have changed.
You will also notice an “Add New” button. Clicking on that takes you to the free themes that WordPress offers on its site (and possibly some themes for sale offered by your webhost).
You might think this is where you get started finding a theme. But the world of themes is much bigger than what you see here and it might be better to search elsewhere.
Here is an overview of the main types of themes you should know about so you can start looking in the right place:
- Free themes from WordPress.org—you access them from the WordPress admin
- Commercial themes —you download them from a vendor’s site.
- Web Builders—drag and drop tools that you can use to build your own theme
- Frameworks—a bare-bones theme that you can build on.
Which one is right for you? Let’s find out.
Free Themes from WordPress.org
If your needs are simple, the free themes offered when you click on “Add New” might be a good, and certainly, economical, choice. But for a commercial website you generally should avoid them for these reasons:
- It’s hard to find what you want. There is no organized way to search through the thousands of themes. How do you evaluate what each theme will do for you when the descriptions are so limited?
- You don’t know how the themes are built. They may look good on the surface but will they conflict with plugins you may later install or future WordPress updates?
- There is often no technical support. Who do you contact if you run into a problem? Will the theme be updated to reflect changes to the WordPress core and new plugins?
- Theme options are limited. If you don’t like the theme as is, will you have the ability to change it?
These themes are available for a small fee ($25-$50). They are generally a better choice than a free theme for these reasons:
- They offer technical support and regular updates.
- They include theme options which allow you to alter the look of the theme to suit your preferences for fonts, colors, layout, etc.
- They often include extended features like responsive layouts, portfolios, shopping carts and more.
Two large brokers for WordPress themes are Mojo and ThemeForest. Themes are organized under broad categories making it easy to find what you are looking for. Usually the theme is backed by support from the original creator so check comments and ratings to see how well they are supported.
Another option for buying a theme are “boutique” shops like WooThemes, Elegant Themes, and StudioPress. The themes are built by the vendors themselves so generally support will be more reliable and documentation will be more detailed. I would start with your search at the boutique shops first. They might be a bit more expensive but it is good knowing who stands behind the work.
Want to try your hand at building your own theme but don’t know code? Web builders were created to allow complex sites to be built with little if any experience with HTML, PHP or CSS, the three computer languages that WordPress sites are built on. If you have a design in mind that doesn’t fit easily into any prepackaged theme, this might be a good place to start. You build a site by dragging and dropping elements, much like you would with a page layout application like InDesign. Like any application, learning the ropes will take some time; there may be a steep learning curve. But you will soon be able to build sites faster than than trying to modify a pre-built theme.
One thing to consider before you use a web builder is that you might be tied to using it for later design changes. Some web builders use a unique method to build a theme and you can’t edit it with standard WordPress tools. This could be a problem if you are passing on your theme for other people to work with who don’t use the same web builder.
Many web designers find it is just easier to build a site from scratch and not spend their time modifying someone else’s work. To save time, many designers start with a framework which is basically a bare-bones theme. These frameworks provide a reliable, tested structure that is easy to build on and backed by solid support and documentation.
Many of the boutique theme shops mentioned above offer a framework that they use to base their themes on. Here is a snapshot of a few options:
- WooThemes offers a theme called Canvas. This is a theme with a basic design and extensive theme options that allow you to make edits within the WordPress admin without knowing any code.
- StudioPress offers Genesis. This framework offers a vast document library. Being popular, a simple Google search will find you help with any modifications you want to make. Experience with CSS essential.
- Themble offers Bones, no frills and no unnecessary code. Meant for the serious programmer.
Working with a Child Theme
No matter what theme you use, if you are planning to change it, you should create a child theme first. The child theme is a placeholder for your changes so the original theme can stay intact. This way you can’t inadvertently break the original and your changes won’t be overwritten when the theme is updated.You can easily create your own child theme, but to make it easy install the plugin, One-Click Child Theme, to automate the process.
I hope this introduction to themes helps get you started on the process. Let me know if this was helpful. If there is one message to take home, it is that you do not need to be limited to a theme but that you have the power to style or build a theme to your unique specifications.