How to Choose a WordPress Theme

by | Sep 13, 2018

Do a Google search on this topic and you’ll see a whole line up of articles listing “the best WordPress themes.” We’re going to focus on how to pick the WordPress theme that’s best for you.

Back in the day, you could automatically style your website by choosing what was called a skin. Skins were mostly simple styling structures – imposing a color scheme and font styles.

Today WordPress themes are a web designer’s superpower. (Yours too!)

How Themes Work

WordPress is built from php files that pull from a MySQL database. Themes are a collection of php files specifically coded to create a Graphical User Interface (GUI.) That’s geek speak for how your website displays in the browser.

Where skins were just minor style changes to an existing design, themes are a customizable design for your site that doesn’t affect any of the WordPress code. Themes are automatically installed in a separate folder in your WordPress installation.

There are thousands of free themes, paid upgrades to free themes and premium themes, like Divi, Avada, Enfold or Genesis Framework. There is no free version of these themes available, but they provide pretty amazing design options for non-technical users. (See Premium Themes below for more details.)

Themes act as templates for your pages and posts. Unless you are simply running a blog, make sure the theme you pick has options for posts AND pages. Also, be aware that no matter how cool your theme looks in the picture – they typically don’t come with the images or content you see.

Free Themes 101

When you login into your WordPress site for the first time, a free theme will already be activated.  It’s typically a theme that comes with the application – currently Twenty Seventeen. (The number changes with significant upgrades.)

Twenty Seventeen is a nice-looking theme with a large picture (called a hero image) on the home page and a sidebar on the left side. This a great template for blogging, but there is no option for a page without that sidebar. Since the sidebar is typically populated with widgets that automatically display, there’s not a lot of flexibility for your pages.

Just a tip, if you’re just writing a blog or putting up a portfolio or resume, you can get a free account at WordPress.com – but be aware that ads will be displayed on it.

WordPress.org has a directory of approved themes – check it out here.

Theme Prep

  1. If you haven’t already sourced some images for your site, here are two great sites to get free images – unsplash.com or pixabay.com. And here’s a free online photo editor to resize them or compress them. Image size is a big factor in how fast your site loads and the loader it takes, the more apt a visitor will move on. Resize your images in the photo editor if needed and save them as a jpeg file to compress the file size. Ideally, you want the images to be no bigger than 300 kb.
  2. Go to your dashboard and make two sample pages and two sample posts. To keep it simple, you can add copy and paste a few paragraphs of fake text (Lorem Ipsum here.) Replace the home page image with one of your own. Choose a Featured Image for your posts. Everything should be published – title your pages: Test Home, Test Page 1, Blog 1, Blog 2. Don’t use actual titles – you’re going to delete these pages. WordPress can get wonky about that sometimes.
  3. Go to Appearances/Widgets on the dashboard menu. If there are no widgets in the Sidebar section, drag a search bar and Recent Posts widgets over to it.

The point of these steps is to let you try a bunch of different themes and actually see what your site might look like. You don’t have to do this, but it gives you a better look at what each theme does.

Try Them Out

Go to Appearances/Themes on your dashboard. Above and beyond the basic themes like Twenty Seventeen, there will a good selection of free themes already uploaded. Hover over each theme and you’ll see two buttons: Activate and Live Preview. Click the Live Preview button to see what your pages and posts would look like using that theme. When you find one you like, Activate it. Voila – instant website!

What if you change your mind? No problem – just start the process again. But if it’s almost right and just needs a few tweaks, see if you can customize it to your liking.

Here’s a tip – if you’re new to WordPress and assume you’ll need a little extra support, google the name of your theme. If the theme is well used, there should be plenty of responses.  If there are free and paid versions, compare the support options for both.  It might be worth a little cash to have better support and probably some extra functions and customizations.

Get Ready for Gutenberg

WordPress is in the process of changing it’s editor to a new model called Gutenberg after the inventor of the first movable type printing press. It’s a big change and is still being tested but you can play with it now as a plugin.

The idea behind Gutenberg to some extend mimics the concept used by themes with visual builders. Gutenberg lets you build your site with blocks of content. You can create text blocks and style them and duplicate them. You can drag images into a box, set up boxes in columns.

The goal is to make life easier for content managers by lowering the learning curve. It is however raising some alarm about backwards compatibility with existing themes and plugins.

Premium Themes

There are thousands of premium themes available for WordPress. If you’re going to spend money for a theme, here are the things to consider before you buy:

  • Responsive to Screen Size
  • Managed Updates
  • Quality & Accessibility of Support
  • Customer Reviews

It never hurts to find out whether they have a trial period either.  You don’t usually get to see the theme in your dashboard until after you buy it.  That’s where you’ll be working most of the time, so what happens if doesn’t meet your expectations.

The important thing is not to be dazzled by a gorgeous demo that the developers have tweaked to high heaven. Ask questions. If you don’t get good answers before you buy – it’s probably not going to improve.

Responsive

Pretty much any decent theme these days should work well on different size screens.  From desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones – your site needs to look good (and be usable) everywhere.  Once you have a link for a theme demo, check it out on every device you have.  Can you easily fill out the forms, are the buttons usable on a smaller screen, how do the images look?

Ask a couple of friends who have devices you don’t – Apple vs Android. Try it in every browser you can – Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera, Microsoft Edge.

Managed Updates

You definitely don’t want a theme that hasn’t had an update in over 6 months. Just the security issues alone should make your anxious. In fairness most of the major theme developers keep their products updated pretty regularly.

The problem tends to be more about what the update does to your site. Depending on your customizations and the extent of the theme’s back end changes – sites can get broken. That makes for seriously unhappy customers and a major drain on support. And it isn’t even anyone’s fault.

For this reason, we love, love, love premium theme Divi’s latest feature: a button to rollback to the previous version if there’s an issue with an update.

Support

This probably the place where a lot of customers have an axe to grind. Trying to work your way through badly written documentation or searching a knowledge base that isn’t well structured for search can be extremely frustrating. There is no phone support for themes – ticket systems and chat are the standard options.

Though chat is typically presented as more immediate – the reality is support is often off shore, in a different time zone and aren’t online 24/7. You end up with an email. This author has a preference for tickets systems that let you search replies to similar questions. At least you can do something while you’re waiting.

You can ask questions about support but don’t expect anything but glowing reviews. If you’re concerned they aren’t going to meet your needs – get a different theme.

Customer Reviews

For other products, reviews are strong indicators of customer satisfaction. For themes, it’s little less reliable. The best themes aren’t sold on marketplaces  – so the reviews you see will be chosen by them. Even on the marketplaces, reviews can reflect users who got in over their head technically.

Definitely take a look but reviews probably aren’t the best driver for your decision. Especially if all you see are 5 stars.

Best of the Best

There are four premium themes that we highly recommend. They are flexible, responsive, consistently working to improve design and function.

Here’s a brief rundown on our picks for best WordPress themes right now.

Theme Description
Divi Divi is top on our list. The level of control and customization without knowing a bit of code is extraordinary. A visual builder that’s you edit right in the browser – no more making changes you have to preview and maybe redo.

The theme is regularly updated, their blog is FABULOUS – lots of great articles and freebies.  There are industry layouts included too – new ones added pretty much every month

Divi is priced in a subscription model – there is a single year plan (unlimited sites) for $80 a year, a developer’s plan and lifetime access at around $250.00. Right now, they have a “try before you buy” offer.

Avada Avada is the best-selling WordPress theme of all times. They also use modular elements in the dashboard and a visual editor to modify content right in the browser.

The Avada theme includes 45 industry specific templates – from churches to restaurants to daycare to IT. They are relatively easy to customize and can be imported with just one click.

An Avada license can be bought for $60, which includes 6 months of support. You can up that to a full year for an additional $18.00

Enfold Enfold is another example of modular WordPress websites.  It is a little less feature rich than Divi and Avada, but still a well-designed theme.

They also offer a number of pre-defined templates for niche businesses, complete with content.  They market their load speed, which can sometimes be an issue for the two themes above.

A license is $59.00 and includes 6 months of support, with the same add-on as Avada to bump it up to a full year.

Genesis Framework This theme works across all devices without a tweak. A newer theme than the major players above, Genesis Framework is light on marketing and strong on features. But you may need to be a bit more technical to flesh them out.

Genesis includes a number of page templates, but it’s not heavy with pretty pictures and fancy layouts. You can buy just the framework itself for $59.00. It includes everything, unlimited support, updates, page templates, etc.

There are two additional pricing options – one tied to a hosting plan at WP Engine and the other to purchase all 35 themes built on Genesis Framework.

 

Please remember that all these niche industry designs are available to anyone who buys the theme in question. PLEASE customize the pictures and if you can – swap out some of the colors or delete a section.  The last thing you need is for you and your competitor down the street to have the same website.  Always make some changes when you use these pre-designed templates.

WordPress Theme Recap

Themes are what make your WordPress experience easier or harder, so don’t be swayed by pretty pictures. You want a theme that looks great but is easy to use, browser friendly and customizable. You can practice with free themes by setting up a few dummy pages and playing around with different free themes.  Preview, Activate and Deactivate at will.

Premium themes are worth the money, we think. The features are rich, there are tons of articles about customizations, scripts, CSS and how-tos on implementing them. They offer tons of ideas, image freebies, and average if not better support.

For less than the price of dinner with a decent bottle of wine – you can look like a master online. To take a deeper dive into our four favorite premium themes – just click here.

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