Let me begin with a confession. I am a theme freak. Yep! Since I have started working with WordPress, I have seen tons of themes. Apparently, I am also a control freak, because I prefer versatile themes that allow me to setup the theme – and therefore the website – my way. No matter how flexible a theme is, sooner or later you might hit the boundaries of what is possible.
When that happens, you could decide to have the theme customized by the theme vendor or find a professional web designer to do so. However, based upon experiences with custom software that road usually implies reoccurring costs, lacking documentation, leading to even more costs. Not a pleasant picture.
It is probably a natural process that after you have seen so many themes, you get interested in theme frameworks. What is a theme framework? For the sake of simplicity: a theme framework offers a foundation for creating a theme. As a non-geek, I would like to add the words “without the need to code” – although a little knowledge of especially CSS will come in handy.
Somewhere in the mid ’90s I have created my first website, so I know HTML and CSS, even some PHP, but I am neither a designer nor a coder. Let me clarify this. From my point of view, a web developer is someone who creates websites for a living – or a hobby. To me, a website is not the ultimate goal, but a mean. A website is a tool for business or pleasure.
No matter how versatile a theme is, it will always beat the dust in comparison with a theme framework when it comes to flexibility and power. As you might expect, there is a down side. A theme framework supplies you with bare bones, nuts and bolts. You will need to invest some time before you can actually use the theme.
On my research for WordPress theme frameworks I have stumbled into 38 different frameworks. Thirty-eight! All developed for the WordPress platform. However, while digging a little bit deeper I discovered that 20% of these projects had been discontinued and about the same percentage had not been updated for six or longer. Given this myriad of theme frameworks, what is the best theme framework for me?
Selecting a Theme Framework
The criteria for choosing a theme framework are comparable to those for choosing a theme:
- Learning Curve
Let’s have a closer look at these criteria.
The design aspect is very important for a theme, but less important for a theme framework since you are going to compose the design yourself. However, it is crucial that the theme framework gives you the tools to create the design that you imagine. Most suppliers of premium theme frameworks create child themes that can be used as is, or as the starting point for your own theme development. After all, adapting a theme is much easier and less time consuming than creating one from scratch.
The majority of the WordPress themes have a two or three column layout. Home pages and landing pages might be better off without a sidebar, so make sure that the theme framework of your choice supports page templates with a sidebar as well as with full width layouts. Furthermore, it is very important that especially the home page will be appropriate for your purpose – blog, magazine, business, creative, or whatever.
This is the hardest part to judge when selecting a theme or a theme framework, since the functionality is usually hidden behind that the design. This was the main reason for me to start with ThemingWP. Since I am a theme-freak, I like to examine the functionality of themes and publish the results at ThemingWP. The Theme Review Tool that I have developed for this purpose, checks upon content serving, layout, customization, marketing, and included add-ons.
In my opinion, the more flexible a theme is the better. A website is almost like a living organism. Things change. Technology is changing even faster, and therefore over time your requirements for the website will change too. Basically, a theme framework beats any theme when it comes to the room for improvements and customization.
One of the major differences between a free theme framework and a premium theme framework is that the premium versions come with a decent set of documentation, support and regular upgrades. Personally, I find it reassuring that the products that I use for my websites are supported by a professional organization. Furthermore, it is my impression that premium theme frameworks have a larger user base, and therefore bigger and more responsive communities.
What is the reputation of the author or the vendor of the theme framework? Is it a one-man-show, or has the company been around for some time already? Nowadays, it is much easier to get an answer to questions like these – direct your browser to your favorite search engine and search for review+theme-framework-name. Or when the company is still young, but the theme framework looks very appealing to you; how is the reputation of the founder(s) and CEO?
Every budget has its limits, so we are all looking for the best deal. I have seen a couple of promising theme frameworks with a price tag of hundreds of dollars – just for the core framework. When you would like to use a child theme created by the vendor of the framework concerned, you will have to pay a price you would pay for a premium theme. This is something I do not understand, but it is beyond my budget. In other cases you pay less than $100 for the theme framework and $25 max for a child theme.
It does not take much time to get a theme up and running. Usually it is a simple three-step-process:
- upload the theme to the web server
- activate it within WordPress
- fill in the blanks
The more versatile a theme is the more blanks, checkboxes, and radio buttons you will encounter. Nevertheless, usually it is a matter of minutes before the new theme is operational.
Theme frameworks have a learning curve. Some have a very steep learning curve. So ask yourself, how much time are you willing to invest in getting to know the theme framework? The main consideration here might be again: is the website your ultimate goal, or just a mean? Do you build websites for a living, or do you need a website for you business or pleasure?
It became clear to me that a premium theme framework was a better option than a free theme framework, because I could always turn to the vendor and the framework’s community for assistance. Since I do not create websites for customers, I did not want to spend hundreds of dollars on the framework, nor weeks or months to become familiar with it.
Fortunately, despite these boundary conditions there are still enough solutions left that meet my requirements. StudioPress Genesis, ColorLabs Backbone and WooThemes Canvas, all offer a decent foundation for creating your own custom themes – even from ground up – fast and cost effective, with a decent return on investment.
This is a repost of my guest post at Colorlabs & Company which was published 30 days ago.