You’re sitting at your computer, you’ve registered your domain name, set up your hosting and installed WordPress, and now you’re staring at a blank website that looks a little bland.
Now it’s time to make it look a little more interesting – time to find a theme.
What is a theme?
A theme is simply an outfit for your website.
It styles your content – your blog posts, pages and images – to look good and be easy for your visitor to find what they need.
A theme will basically style your content by applying colour, fonts, and layout, transforming your words from something that looks like an ordinary word document, into something that captures attention and (hopefully) makes your website visitor want to stay.
The early days of WordPress themes
When I started using WordPress back in 2007, the default theme, Kubrick, looked like this:
It was plain and a little bit boring, but plenty of people used it (and it was so easy to spot the theme when someone was using it on there website).
Kubrick first arrived on the scene in 2005 when WordPress version 1.5 arrived to support themes.
In June of 2010, a new default WordPress theme arrived – a huge improvement on Kubrik and it allowed you to add a custom header – the first step to making your website unique to you.
Since Kubrik finished it’s reign as the default theme in 2010, there has been a new default theme released each year.
The current 2015 theme, very simple and elegant, looks like this:
The different types of themes
If the default WordPress theme was all there was, life would probably be simpler, but not quite so fun if everyone looked the same online.
Just like fashion, themes fall into 3 distinct categories. And just like the human body needs clothes (unless you live in a free-loving commune), every website needs a theme.
Three types of themes:
- Custom theme (‘Haute Couture’) – just like Haute Couture, where each item of clothing is made just for you, to your measurements by experienced seamstresses, this is a theme that is hand built just for you and your website content.
You’ll have your very own design created, that will best showcase your content and guide your visitors to do what you want them to do and give them the best user experience.
That design will then be converted into your custom theme – instructions that will tell your content what it’s going to look like and where it’s going to sit.
This type of custom designed website requires extensive discovery upfront to determine the right solution. Should encompass branding, design and development.
Price: P.O.A . Expect to be starting from $10,000 and up.
- Premium themes (‘Ready-to-Wear’) – Ready-to-wear is a crossover between Haute Couture and Mass Market – a high quality item of clothing usually from a design house, with some exclusivity (price and availability).
Premium themes are like a ‘ready-to-wear’ item of clothing in that they are created by designers, have a price attached that will likely exclude the bargain hunters, but be able to be customised to some extent to better fit your content – just like clothing can be ‘tailored’ to fit you better.
Different designs are available based on your needs (blog layout or business layout), alterations can be easily made to fonts, colours and some layout changes are possible if the theme uses widgets.
More extensive customisations can be carried out by hiring a designer and/or developer.
Price: Premium themes start from approximately $60.
Customisations range from the low hundreds up to a few thousand depending on the level of customisation required.
- Free themes (‘Mass Market’) – while technically Mass market still costs money, ($2 t-shirts and $10 jeans from places like K-Mart are pretty close to free), it’s still a good way to describe these themes.
Free themes are easily available directly from your WordPress dashboard. You can sort by Featured, Popular and Latest or use the Feature Filter to refine your search even further:You can very easily spend days looking at different themes – simply hover over the image of the theme and click on preview.The very first theme I used on my first WordPress website was from the free WordPress theme repository. It was basically an “as is” theme – it was pretty, but not easy to change the look of the theme at all. Useful for when you’re starting out and you’re on a tight budget but pretty quickly you’ll see where the gaps are and you’ll have a better idea of what you need for your blog or business website.
Note: Themes to watch out for
Not all paid themes are considered equal and while the term Premium usually goes hand in hand with a theme that you have to pay for, in this instance, I personally wouldn’t apply the title of Premium to this type of paid theme.
The ‘Potato sack’ themes – A slim model can look good in a potato sack and can dress it up to go from daytime casual to night time glamour with a change of accessories. Unfortunately when the average ‘normal’ person tries this look, it never seems to work out.
This is the problem with some paid themes that promise all the bells and whistles.
They appeal to the new DIY-er because:
- the theme sounds like the answer to all their problems
- the theme promises unlimited layouts – you can create any design style you want (or get overwhelmed by excessive choice),
- unlimited colour and font choices without touching a line of code (or end up with a fiesta of multi coloured and varying size and types of fonts)
- the site is so bloated with excessive functionality and too many built in plugins, that it’s slow to load and an open invitation to hackers.
I can’t mention any names because I haven’t used any of these themes myself for my projects – I’ve only seen the results when unsuspecting bloggers or new business owners have multiple problems on these themes and end up having to pay more than expected to have these issues solved.
In a nutshell, if it seems cheap and you’re getting so much and it sounds too good to be true, it should probably be avoided.
What type of theme is right for you?
I could also ask this question in a different way – what type of website are your ready for?
Before you start looking at individual themes, first decide whether you should be looking at Free, Premium or Custom theme for your website.
Which type you choose depends on:
- How clear you are on your business idea
- Your budget
The reason I put budget second is because I believe even if you have the money available, I think you need to have a clear direction for your blog or business before you go spending money on creating a website.
Usually (but not always) clarity in your target market, your offerings and your branding comes after a few different iterations of your website.
Here is the most common path that would suit the majority of website owners:
Start with a free theme
There is minimal cost involved (just domain name and hosting) and if the first theme you choose doesn’t work for you, then you can choose another one until you find something that works.
Choose free themes from within your WordPress dashboard (under Appearance/Themes) because these themes have been reviewed by WordPress theme review team and have to meet specific guidelines for it to be released in the theme repository.
Move up to a premium theme
Once you’ve tried a few free themes, you’ll likely have a better idea of what you need for your blog or business and how you want to present the information. Choosing a professionally designed, premium theme gives you a more professional image at a fraction of the cost to hire them to create something just for you.
And if you’re feeling ready, you could hire a designer to create a logo and style guide for you (fonts, colours and possibly patterns) that speak to your ideal customer.
With a premium theme you have 3 broad options:
- You can upload the theme, set it up as per the demo instructions and use it as it is,
- Try your hand at some basic customisations – add a logo, change colours and fonts (either ideas you’ve come up with yourself, or a style guide a designer has created for you), populate widget areas
- Hire a web designer to do the theme customisations for you – a little or a lot, depending on your budget
This level – a customised theme, can see you through your business for quite a number of years – in fact I’ve seen some custom designed websites that are nowhere near as good as a well customised, premium theme. So before you go jumping into spending big dollars, make sure you really are ready for that and you have the right person doing the work for you.
Up-level to a custom designed website
Your website designer will need extensive information from you about your business, what you offer and your ideal customer. This will be used to create a website that you like but more importantly, appeals to your ideal customer. You may find a web professional that will do both the design (creating the “picture”) and the development (creating the code) of the site, but more likely you’ll work with a separate designer and developer.
All of this work requires time and expertise and this is what you pay for. It’s also why this isn’t usually the first type of website you will jump in to because the average person won’t have sufficient clarity to be able to provide what the designer needs to create your website for you.
Free or Premium Theme?
Choosing a free theme
As mentioned above, the only place you should be choosing free themes is from your WordPress dashboard – under Appearance/Themes. In this area you’ll see the themes that are already installed on your website available for use. If you’ve got a fresh website, you’ll probably only see some of the default WordPress themes – it may just be the 2015 default theme or 2014 and 2013 as well (depends on the version of WordPress your hosting company has for the quick install, if that’s how you’ve installed WordPress).
To see what other options you have, simply click on the Add New button at the top of the themes page and you’ll be taken to the theme chooser. You’ll see the categories Featured, Popular and Latest and also the Feature Filter.
There is plenty to choose from, but I haven’t used a free theme since I created my first blog in 2007, so unfortunately I don’t have any first hand recommendations. It’s pretty much a case of trial and error.
Downsides of using a free theme
Because the theme is free, the theme developer doesn’t have ongoing motivation to keep the theme updated or even support the theme, so if something goes wrong , you’ll likely have a more difficult time getting the help you need or it will cost more because the person helping you will need to take some time working out how this particular theme works.
This is why choosing a Premium theme is a better option.
Choosing a Premium theme
This is where I do have plenty of experience because it’s all we use when we build sites for ourselves and our clients.
There are a handful of good premium theme designers in the marketplace and thankfully I stumbled across StudioPress (the one we use now) not long after I discovered WordPress in 2007.
StudioPress is the creator of the Genesis framework which is the base that sits on WordPress – it’s where all the cool functionality lies (like being search engine optimised) and then you add a child theme on top to give your site the look you want.
My favourite places to get child themes are StudioPress themselves and Restored 316
Side note: Child themes – what are they?
So there are two options when choosing a theme –
- you can get a regular theme, install that on your site, configure and away you go. The downside with a regular theme is that if/when the theme developer updates the theme (which a good theme developer should), if you have added any sort of customisations in the style sheet, you’ll lose all those modifications unless you’ve put them in a special custom style sheet area (custom css). And if you’re thinking that you just won’t update – probably not a great idea because you should always make sure WordPress and your theme are up to date for security and functionality reasons.
- framework plus child theme – this is what Genesis is – it’s the framework (or parent theme) and then you choose a child theme (for the Genesis framework) where all your customisations happen. This way, Genesis can be updated when needed and it won’t affect any customisations you’ve made on your website – perfect really 🙂
Why choose the Genesis framework as your starting point?
StudioPress (the creator of the Genesis framework) is the industry standard for WordPress themes and has a large community of designers and developers that use only Genesis. What that means for you is once you start using Genesis, it can support your website for as long as you wish.
Some of the great things about Genesis:
- it has rock solid security,
- loads quickly,
- is SEO optimised
- has beautiful, mobile responsive designs
- flexible foundation code
In a nutshell, it’s the way all websites should be created.
When you’re starting out, you can change out the child theme when you need a new layout or want a fresh look and as you progress in your business a child theme can be customised for you or you can get a custom theme created just for your business. Once you learn how to use your site and where the functionality lies, even changing child themes, you’ll know where to go in your dashboard.
And if you need help with your site, you have a higher likelihood of finding someone that can help you with a Genesis based theme than you will with a free or not very well known individual theme.
With Genesis, unlike other theme frameworks, you can use the framework and child theme on multiple websites without needing to pay for an additional license – handy if you’re good at customising and have a few different ideas, you can use the same child theme laid out differently for a completely different look.
Other theme options you might have heard of
There are a few other popular theme frameworks that you might have heard of – Thesis, Headway, Canvas (from Woothemes).
I haven’t used Headway or Canvas and Thesis only very briefly around the same time I started using StudioPress themes (I found StudioPress to be much easier to use).
The feedback I see regarding Headway, despite it’s promotion as a drag and drop builder, is that for beginners, it’s frustrating and not very easy to use. As for Canvas – can’t comment at all.
What about Divi?
Divi is a widely known and a lot of people jump in to Divi because it has fancy transitions and parallax type styling for the home page.
Again, I haven’t used Divi myself, but the reviews I’ve read is that it’s biggest downfall is the use of shortcodes in page content, to lay out pages. What this means is you’ll get a great looking website, but down the track if you decide to move to a different theme, you’ll be stuck with the painful job of removing all the shortcodes from your content before you can launch your new website.
If you’re planning to use Divi to layout a sales page for a course you’re offering, it’s unlikely you’ll need to change the theme until you’re ready to hire a professional designer and developer to re-do the site completely, so the decision to use it in this instance is totally up to you.
Choosing a specific child theme for your website
We’re finally at the fun end of choosing a theme – the theme selection itself.
A Blog style theme will display your blog posts on the front page either with or without a sidebar. This type of theme is ideal if blogging is the main activity on your site. You can still create other pages – About, Contact, Services (if you’re offering services), but the front page shines the spotlight on your blog posts.
A Business style theme will have different sections on the front page where you can direct your visitors to key pages within your site and a few of your recent blog posts – it showcases your business and the services your offer.
The front page of this website (WP Website Coach) is a business style theme.
The Business style layout of the front page is created by adding specific content to the widgeted areas, so if you like the overall look of a particular Business style theme, but you don’t have services to offer yet, just don’t add content to the widget areas.
Ready to choose your theme?
It’s now time to dive in and choose a theme for your website.
These are the two places I source my child themes from most often:
I’ve also listed some other places you can get Genesis child themes from on our Resources page.
Special Note: If you’re a theme junkie and can’t decide which theme you’d like to use, the Pro Pack from StudioPress may be the right solution for you – this way you get all the current child themes (including themes a selection of themes created by third party designers) and any new ones released for the period of your subscription.
Want to learn more?
In future blog posts I’ll be showcasing the different themes and showing you examples of how you can make the one theme look very different.
If you have a particular theme from StudioPress or Restored 316 that you’d like me to write about, or if you have another theme related question that I haven’t covered above, please leave a comment below.
Happy Website Creating 🙂
Share this with your friends.