Choosing a WordPress theme

In WordPress Themes by Gregg Banse2 Comments

Choosing a theme for WordPress can be exciting and fun! I don’t know about you but I’m like a kid in a candy store with $40 to spend! Big dramatic images of beautiful people, colorful wide vistas, deeply moving landscapes, iconic world events, extraordinary photographs of everyday life, combined with appealing color schemes all designed to capture the visitor’s attention. That’s exactly what I initially react to. I have an impulsive desire to choose a theme based on my initial reaction to the visual design. What a theme looks like is very important and sometimes a powerful influence in my decision but it shouldn’t be.  There is a lot more to consider before I buy a theme.

Theme authors have a lot of latitude in building a theme. The files that make up the theme (template files) control both what the theme looks like AND how much interaction you can have with the theme through the WordPress admin area. This is the big gotcha and unless the theme author somehow communicates what their theme allows me to change and control, I’m taking a risk. So I’ve fallen into a habit of reviewing themes in a certain way. I won’t call it a system because these are more like guidelines.

Communication & Clarity

Written communications are very important when buying services and products online. Especially if instructions are necessary for installation and configuration. Clear and well written communication and instruction is an absolute must. I know that English is a second language for some theme authors. This doesn’t necessarily equate to poor written communication skills but it could be. And just because someone is very good at building a theme doesn’t necessarily translate into being good at providing instructions. So one of the first items I look at is the description of the theme itself. How well are the functions and abilities described? Did the author answer the common questions or did they just jump to marketing hype? A good author will anticipate my need to know the common questions no matter how silly or obvious they may be – like does the theme support a child theme or can I change the fonts, colors, header images, and logo? It’s about their attention to possible questions as much as it as about the theme’s abilities.

Support & Documentation

Support and documentation are very important because I guarantee there will come a time when I have a question even though I’m not afraid to (and often choose to) learn by trial and error. Maybe I just can’t find a switch or something just doesn’t make sense or doesn’t work the way I expected it. This is when I turn to the documentation*.

Really good theme authors design the controls and screens for their themes to be intuitive – easy to understand, navigate, and find the items you’re looking for and then to edit them. They will also organize their documentation to match the screens & controls and use sub-heads, hyperlinks, and references/links to the WordPress documentation where applicable. I look for this level of organization because it is indicative of their attention to detail and care.

If I can’t find the answer in the documentation then I’ll turn to the support forum so before I buy or use a theme, I’ll check out the support forum next. I look for both the easy and the difficult questions. I look for a couple of items here:

  • How long did it take the theme author to reply?
  • How well did they understand the issue/question?
  • Did they resolve the item or was it something they couldn’t solve because of the particulars of the user’s situation?
  • Are questions being answered by other people?
  • Was the theme author respectful and mindful of the user’s time?
  • How many questions/issues are unresolved?

Remember that support comes in a time of need*. It’s one thing to ask a question about how to do something but it’s entirely a different matter to ask a question that involves something that doesn’t work as advertised or worse – involves a website that is offline or horribly disfigured. I like to see examples of support when a user needed the author most.

* A request: please look for an answer in the documentation and if not there, then see if it’s already been answered in the support forum, before you ask your question or explain an issue you’re having. It may save you and the theme author time and aggravation. If it’s not there, then yes, ask!

Where to find a WordPress theme

You can find WordPress themes in the WordPress theme directory or at any number of different online resources. Be aware of the differences and pros/cons of the different sources of themes.

Themes are created by theme authors and I’d rather support the author directly when possible. But there are advantages to me as a buyer to using a theme farm. The biggest advantage for me is they standardize the information presented so it makes it easier to compare themes. This sort of includes support and documentation. They at least provide a place for the theme author to indicate whether or not they provide support and link to the forum. Documentation is often required though again, it can be on the theme farm site or at a site of the theme author’s choosing.

If I already know the author and they have a website then I will go directly to it. The advantage is that I am more likely to have opportunity to develop a relationship with the theme author and thus better service when I need it. It’s an advantage to the theme author as well – more personalized and if they’re savvy, more opportunity to offer additional products and services. Which I may very well need and want.

Some theme providers have morphed into what are referred to as frameworks. WooThemes and Genesis come to mind but there are others like Hybrid Base (which is actually closer to a real framework). The idea behind WooThemes and Genesis is to create a stable of themes that use a common set of functions so from the users perspective, they may look different to the visitor but the administrative controls and screens have a similar look, feel, and function which should make it easier for the user. Hybrid Base achieves something similar but it’s intended more for theme builders.

How to Choose?

The best way to choose is to know what you want first. You may not be able to use the right words or understand the technical details but you should be able to articulate your vision. Then you will need to learn the lingo enough to read through the descriptions and equate what you want to what each theme offers. I like to use a spreadsheet to help me compare. What I will often do is sift through dozens of themes looking for likely candidates based on the visuals, the documentation, the support forums, and the initial list of features and functions. I’ll select 3-5 and then use a spreadsheet to identify the different items of importance like responsive design, number of downloads, font selections, different layouts, etc. It may take you some time to learn what all the terms and technical details mean to you but it’s worth taking the time. See “What do you have to lose” below.

Remember there is a difference between what the theme author includes in the administration tools and what you can customize by editing template files. Ideally, you don’t want to edit template files but if you must use a child theme.

What do you have to lose?

Most themes and even the theme frameworks will cost you less than $100 USD. But you may burn through 2 or 3 themes to find the one you want to use. To get to the theme I use on this site (Tiny Forge) [Note: I no longer use this theme] I purchased and worked with 3 themes before I settled on this one. I had to be willing to let go of the money I spent though. That wasn’t easy but in total I spent about $120 to settle on this theme (free – but I did donate $45 to the author). That’s as much as I’d spend for an hour’s time with a consultant. I also spent about 20 hours of my time to research, purchase, install and configure, then use each of the themes. The total project took me 2 weeks start to finish.

Choosing a theme takes time but time and a little expense up front can make the end result much more productive and pleasant. It’s important to me that I enjoy the blogging experience and working with my site. If I don’t enjoy working here, adding content, developing new tools & plugins, then why do it? The right theme can make such a huge difference!


  1. Thank you for this extremely useful post. This will give anyone starting a business a leg up in finding a quality WordPress Theme.

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