WordPress was born with one mission in mind: democratize publishing. That is, its goal is to make it easier for anyone to create, publish, and share content on the web, no matter what skills you have (or lack) related to programming, HTML, databases, and so on. And I think you’ll agree with me that, so far, WordPress has been quite successful at it: 30% of all the sites on the Internet are made in WordPress, making it clear that anyone with time and desire can publish content on the web. And thanks to its extensible architecture with plugins and themes, WordPress made it possible that anyone could create the site they wanted and tweak it as they pleased. Or couldn’t they?
In today’s post I’d like to talk about WordPress themes: where to get them, how to set them up, and everything you should consider when choosing one for your website. Whether you’re starting a new website or you want to give your current website a new look and feel, you must know all the details I’m about to share so… let’s get started!
Let’s start at the beginning and let’s do it by reading the Codex: what the heck is a WordPress theme?
Fundamentally, the WordPress Theme system is a way to “skin” your weblog. Yet, it is more than just a “skin.” Skinning your site implies that only the design is changed. WordPress Themes can provide much more control over the look and presentation of the material on your website.
A WordPress Theme is a collection of files that work together to produce a graphical interface with an underlying unifying design for a weblog. These files are called template files.
In essence a theme defines the way in which the contents of our website will be shown to our visitors. Style, layout, graphics, organization, types of content…. all this is usually part of the theme (although, truth be told, there are some things that might be defined in a theme and should be in a plugin instead… but that’s a story for another day).
What IS a Theme in WordPress?
In the WordPress context, a theme is nothing more than a small directory found in the
wp-content/themes folder that contains several files which tell WordPress how content should be displayed to your visitors. In the Codex you have a lot of information about them and, specifically, information on how to create your own theme or tweak an existing one.
Some of the files you’ll find in every WordPress theme are:
style.css: This is the main stylesheet. It’s specially important because, not only does it contain the CSS rules of your theme, but also a special comment at the beginning that tells WordPress some information about the theme: its name, author, website URL, and so on.
functions.php: A simple file that WordPress will load when the theme is active. It defines extra functions and features required by the theme itself.
index.php: The main template of the theme.
header.php: The header of your website, which is usually required at the beginning of all your theme templates.
comments.php: The template for rendering the comments form and set of comments in a blog post.
single.php: The template for rendering a blog post.
page.php: The default page template, which is used for rendering a WordPress page. Usually, you’ll have more than one of this, so that different pages can look different in the front-end.
author.php: A template for rendering information about the authors on your website.
I honestly think a theme in WordPress is pretty straightforward—anyone can get an idea of what’s going on by just looking at the different files used… but it’s also clear you’ll need medium/advanced knowledge if you want to be able to create your own theme. Luckily, you won’t ever be in this position: there’s plenty of options to have the right theme in your blog, and none of them involve you creating it.
Themes on WordPress.org
The most common option when searching for a first topic for our website is the WordPress.org theme directory itself. The theme we find here are all free and GPL licensed. The creators of these themes are WordPress users, just like you and me. The only difference is, they have the time and the skills to create a WordPress theme 😉
When choosing a theme from this directory you have to be careful. Some of them, such as the Twenty-something, are WordPress‘ “official” themes and, therefore, are guaranteed to be of high quality and, above all, to have updates and bug fixes in the future. But most of the themes found in the WordPress directory were made by WordPress users and enthusiasts. The quality of these themes is only guaranteed up to some extent (they’re all reviewed by the community before being published in the directory), but no one guarantees they’ll get updated in the future or that you’ll receive any support if you need it.
Premium and Professional Themes
Another common option when choosing a theme for WordPress is to look at the premium theme market. These themes are fee-based (usually around $60) and offer updates and support from the developer for six months or a year. After this period of time, the license would have to be renewed if we want to continue to have access to those updates and support.
There are many platforms where you can search and find premium themes: Themeforest, Template Monster, Elegant Themes, Studiopress, iThemes… When you want to search for a premium theme and your budget is limited, just go there, compare the options, and select the one that better suits your needs.
One of the things I like about these websites is the filters they usually include. Unlike the WordPress theme repository, which doesn’t have too many options, premium theme directories allow you to search for the ideal theme by filtering by a multitude of criteria and, in addition, they often give you the option of previewing the theme so that you can see what it looks like in a “real environment”.
The last option when choosing the ideal theme for your website is actually choosing none and ask a professional developer to create a unique theme specifically tailored to your site instead. As you can imagine, this is the most expensive solution of all, but the one that probably offers the best results.
We, for example, used to use a premium theme from Themeforest: Angle. The theme was quite good—it had a clean and elegant design, it had good support (it was created in 2014 and four years later it’s still receiving updates 😎), and it clearly saves a lot of time to its users (at least, it saved ours). But we wanted something more personal…
When we were about to launch Nelio Content, we decided to stop using Angle in our website and hire the services of our friends from Silo Creativo for the design of the logos of our new plugin, as well as the design and layout of its website. In the end, we opted to unify our entire online presence and ended up with a single unique theme designed specifically for us and according to our needs, which is what you’re seeing right now.
Things You Should Pay Attention To When Choosing a Theme
Okay, now that you know where you can find a theme that meets your needs, it’s time to talk about everything you need to consider to make the right choice. “I find this theme beautiful, I love it” is not enough. When choosing a new theme, you must be aware of the issues you might encounter with it in the future. Because, yup, there will be issues…
A few months ago, Ruth talked to us about how to select a theme in WordPress. As you can read there, you have to take into account the current design trends, see what your competition is doing and decide if you want to be like them or try out something completely new and different. And, above all, be clear about what you want to achieve with your website. All these factors help you choose a theme that fits the personality you want your website to have and the way you are going to communicate with your audience.
But there are still a couple of very important technical considerations that you can’t ignore…
Careful with the Infamous Theme Lock-In!
What the heck is this “theme lock-in” stuff? This is how Torquemag defines it:
Picture this scenario: say you get yourself a shiny new theme for your WordPress website. This theme provides everything that your website needs: it has shortcodes for embedded galleries, custom post types for testimonials, and portfolio items—even some room for that odd SEO meta code.
You set it all up, and your website goes live. Later on, say after a few months, or maybe even a year, you decide to change your theme. You get another shiny new theme, and much to your dismay, you notice that all your awesome embedded galleries, custom post types, and a lot more has just vanished. Not deleted, not removed, nothing—just gone!
This is precisely what the theme lock-in effect is. By opting for a theme that performed tasks that it should not have performed in the first place, your website became locked to a particular theme, and the moment you changed your theme, everything fell out of place.
I’m not going to lie to you: changing the theme will never be easy. In general, you can’t always change one theme for another in a couple of clicks and expect everything to work: one will have a menu in the header and footer and another will only have one menu in the header; one will have a single page layout and the other will let you choose between one or two columns; etc. Changing the theme will always be a process that will require time and effort.
So when you choose a theme, try to discover up to which extent it suffers from this effect, what features does it offer, does it offer them through the theme itself or does it do it with plugins, are these plugins compatible with other themes or are they just for this one? All these questions should help you to make a better decision and, at least, if you choose a topic that has this “downside”, you will do so by being aware of it and accepting the work you will have in the future.
Customer Support is Paramount
Another key element to take into account when choosing a theme is the support behind it. I hope I’m wrong, but chances are you’ll have trouble with it at some point. Maybe a plugin is incompatible, maybe you don’t know how to configure something, maybe a security hole has appeared and someone has to fix it…. Whatever it is, at some point you’ll need your theme to be more than just a bunch of lines of code installed in WordPress and you’ll want someone behind it who can help.
In premium themes, this is usually “guaranteed”, since you’re paying for it: you’ve spent 60 bucks on a theme and now you have support and updates for a year. But what about the free themes? Who knows!? 🤷 Just pay special attention to the support forums, the number of installations in which the theme is active, the community behind it…. the more people who use the same theme, the less original you will be but the easier it’ll be to find someone to help you 😉
This is something users might not always take into account when looking for the most economical solution (you know, the “I can fix whatever happens” syndrome), but it’s of paramount importance. I know what I’m talking about—user support is our number one priority at Nelio and thanks to this philosophy we’re doing pretty well, because our customers really value it 😇
Don’t Fool Yourself—If You Want Professional Results, You’ll Need a Professional
This is a piece of advice I can’t help but comment on, especially in the world of WordPress. We WordPress developers have a (bad?) habit of telling users that WordPress is simple and that, with a little effort, they can do it all themselves. And it’s true: if you’re curious and you want to, you’ll be able to set up your own website. But don’t be fooled: it’ll probably end up looking like crap.
There are countless examples of this. Can you bake a cake at home? Of course! Just follow the recipe and you’re done. Will it be as good as that of a professional baker? No way. Can you paint your own house? Of course. Will it look as good as the work of a professional painter? I doubt it.
The web world is no different. Obviously, if you’ve been doing something for a long time (even if it’s a hobby) and you’ve practiced and practiced and practiced, in the end you’ll be a professional at it too (or you’ll get pretty close to being one). But, in general, this is not the case. So don’t be fooled into thinking that a website made by you, without too much knowledge, will be excellent. It may work, but there is always room for improvement. If you have the resources, ask for professional advice and help.
WordPress themes allow us to customize the look and feel of our website. There are different directories where we can go to get themes (both premium and free), as well as the option to contact a professional designer and ask them to design our very custom theme. But no matter where you get the theme, the most important thing is to know the implications of using one or another: theme lock-in, support, price…