Learn Everything You Need to Know About the Different Types of WordPress Themes

WordPress

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WordPress Themes allow us to completely modify the appearance of our website. By installing one theme or another and configuring it correctly, our website will be able to convey specific feelings, fit with our personal image, and stand out from the competition.

For example, a couple of years ago, we had a WordPress blog in Spanish called WPrincipiante. The theme we used back then was completely focused on the blog content, and so the front page contained our blog posts:

2016 version of Wprincipiante
2016 version of Wprincipiante.es

Shortly afterwards we decided it was time to merge all our websites and blogs into a single domain: neliosoftware, and this is what we have now:

Nelio Software Front Page 2018
This is the front page of Nelio Software’s website in 2018

A simple page where we present our company, our customers, and our services. But we still run the blog, and you can still find it in our website:

Blog Posts in Nelio Software's Front Page
Some blog posts in Nelio Software’s front page.

So, even though in this case not only did we change the theme, but also the domain name of our original blog, you can see how much of a difference the theme itself makes. This new website looks completely different to what we had before, since it now focuses on our services.

In this post we will look in depth at the different themes that exist in WordPress and teach you everything you need to know about them so that you can configure and adapt them to your needs.

Basic WordPress Themes

Let’s start with the simplest concept of all: the WordPress theme. As I just mentioned, themes define the appearance of our WordPress site. As stated in the official documentation, a theme is a set of files that define the HTML templates that will be used to render the contents of our blog, along with other typical assets of any website such as stylesheets, JavaScript files, etc.

The default WordPress theme is Twenty Seventeen. It’s a simple and functional theme, ideal for running a simple blog with three or four simple pages (you know, contact page, privacy policy page, etc).

Screenshot of the Twenty Seventeen WordPress Theme
Screenshot of the Twenty Seventeen WordPress Theme, the latest official WordPress theme.

Some of its features include a front page with multiple sections, multiple sidebars, etc. If you want to see this theme in action, just take a look at WordCamp Barcelona 2018 website. As you can see, it’s an elegant, simple, and functional design.

Obviously, the set of options and functionalities that we find in a theme depend on the theme itself. Some themes are very powerful and versatile. Others are simpler and ideal for a niche. So it’s all a matter of finding the one that best suits your needs. There is a huge amount of themes in the WordPress.org theme directory, which can be accessed directly from the WordPress Dashboard itself:

Available Themes in the WordPress Theme Directory
Themes in the WordPress Theme Directory can be browsed from your Dashboard.

All the themes you’ll find here are free themes you can easily install and use on your website. If you’re interested in choosing one theme from the officlal repo (or anywhere else, actually), please make sure it’s well maintained by the developer, that other users are using it, and that support is active.

Premium Themes

Another option for finding an outstanding WordPress theme is to take a look at premium marketplaces. Premium themes are, in essence, the same as the ones found in WordPress.org, but with some additional guarantees: since you’re paying for them, you can expect (and demand) support and updates from the developer.

As I mentioned a few days ago in this other post, there are many marketplaces where you can find and buy a premium theme: Themeforest, Template Monster, Elegant Themes, Studiopress, iThemes… Just take a look at those websites and find the theme that better suits your needs…

Angle Premium Theme
An example of a premium theme is Angle, which can be found in themeforest.

One common feature among premium themes is the fact that they’re Multipurpose Themes. A multipurpose theme is just a regular WordPress theme with TONS of features, so that you can use it for just about anything. These themes are very useful for someone with a tight budget who wants to make sure they’ll be able to do whatever they want with their theme (pricing tables, product presentation, feature listing, testimonials, team… you name it). However, there are two big drawbacks:

  1. Complexity. These themes include so many features that there’s a big change you won’t use some of them. This means you’ll be using a heavy and complex theme, which might generate some performance issues.
  2. Theme Lock-in. The biggest risk we face with this kind of themes is that we start using all its features and suddenly, when we want to switch the theme, we realize we can’t because we depend on all its features. Multipurpose themes make it easy to get started, but they also make it very difficult to move forward.

Customization and Child Themes

So far we’ve been talking about regular themes, but the WordPress theme ecosystem is much broader and more complicated than that. There are some peculiarities in the WordPress theme arena you need to know to understand exactly how they work. And among these peculiarities is the notion of child themes.

As you know, one of the great advantages of WordPress is its open source nature, which means nobody can stop you from taking a look inside your theme and modifying it as you please. So, for example, if you want to embed a tracking script in the header.php file of your theme, you can do it. If you want to modify the template used to render a blog post, go ahead and do it. And if you want to add a new sidebar in the footer of your website, it’s also within your reach. All this is possible but… did you know that all these tweaks can disappear with the blink of an eye?

When there’s a new version of your theme, WordPress downloads it and replaces your current theme with the updated version. This means that any changes you made in the previous version will just vanish with the update.

To avoid this problem, WordPress introduced child themes. A child theme is an “incomplete” WordPress theme that depends on another theme (the parent theme) to work. The idea is very simple: instead of tweaking the files of the original theme, you create a new theme in WordPress and set it as the child theme of the one you want to tweak. Then, you simply redefine the files you want to tweak in the child theme and rely on the parent for everything else. This way, when there’s a new update, WordPress will overwrite the parent theme, but your tweaks will be safe and sound in the child theme.

Grandchild Themes. Is This a Thing?

Now that you know about child themes you might be wondering: is it possible to create a child theme from another child theme? And, if it is, would I ever need them?

Short answer is no. WordPress only allows a parent theme and a child theme. You can’t create a child theme of another child theme (that is, a “grandchild” theme). But, as we shall see in a few paragraphs, they’d be actually quite useful… and that’s why there are some formulas to create grandchild themes.

Starter Themes and Framework Themes

Now that we know what WordPress themes are and how we can adapt them, it’s time to spend a couple of minutes talking about how to create a theme. You can obviously create a new theme from scratch, but I recommend you don’t do so and, instead,  you use either a starter theme or a framework theme. Let’s see what each of them are.

As we have already seen, a theme is a set of files (templates, stylesheets, scripts, and so on) that modify the appearance of our website. Creating a theme from scratch means that we have to prepare the structure of directories and files to make everything work. And this is time consuming and quite repetitive.

A starter theme gives us a more or less functional skeleton from which to start to create our own theme. There are many starter themes available, but one of the best known and most valued starter themes you can find is Underscores. This theme is totally minimalist and is not intended to be used on any website as it’s distributed. Instead, you’re supposed to use it as the basis for creating your very own theme.

Underscores, a Fantastic Starter Theme by Automattic
Underscores is a well-documented, simple, and fantastic starter theme that you can use to create your very own WordPress theme.

Another option for creating themes in WordPress is the use of framework themes, which rely on the mechanism of parent and child themes. In essence, a framework theme is a fully functional theme (i.e. we can install it on any WordPress site and it will work perfectly well), but its purpose is to serve as a basis for a child theme. The child theme will take advantage of the functions and features of the framework theme to adapt it and create something unique.

An example of such a paradigm is the Genesis Framework by StudioPress. As you see in the following screenshot, it’s a simple and elegant theme that we can use in any web site, but its real potential lies in the fact that it’s presented as a framework: its architecture and design encourage developers to extend and adapt it to create new themes by means of child themes.

The Genesis Framework
The Genesis framework eases the creation of new themes by simply extending it via child themes.

If you take a look at the StudioPress website, you’ll see that there are plenty of themes based on Genesis. They are all unique, but their internals are quite similar, as they’re based on the same parent theme.

Themes that use the Genesis Framework
There’s plenty of themes that use the Genesis Framework.

The great advantage of this type of themes is the ease with which you can switch between them: since all child themes that use the same framework are essentially the same theme (they are still an “adaptation” of the framework theme), changing themes that use the same framework is extremely simple.

But not all that glitters is gold: these kind of themes have a big drawback. Since we are already using a child theme, we cannot create a child theme for this child theme to adapt it as we want… so, if we really wanted to do it, we would be forced to implement some workarounds to create “grandchild themes”. But this is a topic for another post…

Other Types of Themes

Finally, let’s briefly comment on three other types of themes that, although not essentially different from the previous ones, have some characteristics that make them unique and special. These are themes with page builders, custom themes, and compatibility themes.

Themes Featuring a Page Builder

Themes with a page builder are themes that include a user-friendly tool to build pages visually without any coding skills required. A well-known example (loved by many, hated by others) of this type of theme is Divi:

Divi Theme
One of the greatest features about Divi is its built-in page builder.

Custom Tailored Themes

Another option that we should consider when searching for a theme in WordPress is the possibility of asking a professional team to design a custom theme for us. In this post we have already seen how we can do it ourselves (using starter themes or framework themes), but the result we would get would probably look slightly worse than what we’d get from a professional.

Our theme, for example, was designed and created by Silo Creativo, and I hope you agree with me: it looks pretty gorgeous!

Silo Creativo's Website
Just ask a professional to help you create your next gorgeous theme. You won’t be disappointed.

The great advantage of this type of themes is that the result is completely unique and perfectly tailored to your needs, so the loading times you can get will probably be better and the end user interface will be much simpler. But the cost is a clear downside: making a custom theme is always more expensive than using one that already exists… but in my opinion, if you have the budget, it’s worth it in the long run.

Themes Compatible With WooCommerce, BuddyPress, BBPress, and so on

If your website is more than just a website with a simple blog and includes things like an online store with WooCommerce, forums with BBPress, or even a small social network with BuddyPress, then you definitely have a complex WordPress installation and therefore you need to make sure that the theme you choose is compatible with all this. If you don’t, well, you risk your site will look like crap.

Storefront, the official WooCommerce Theme
Storefront is the official WooCommerce Theme.

Many of the themes you’ll find out there (both free and premium) are compatible with WooCommerce and other popular plugins, but many others aren’t. So if your website uses any of these components, please make sure the theme you choose explicitly states its compatibility with them.

Wrapping Up

The world of WordPress themes is more complex than it seems at first: basic themes, pemium themes, child themes, framework themes, starter themes… In this post we have learned what all of them are and how we can use them. I hope all the information I shared today helped you understand a little bit more how WordPress themes work!

Featured Image by Victoria Bilsborough on Unsplash.

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He obtained his PhD in Computer Science at UPC. David leads the analysis and design of our services and the user support area. He's interested in a variety of areas, including conceptual modeling, virtual reality, and 3D digital printing. He contributes to the WordPress community by participating in meetups, seminars, and the WCEU.

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