When you set up your WordPress blog or website, or are considering changing your theme, you either pick a theme you’ve heard of and find out too late it’s the wrong one, or you spend so many hours staring at hundreds of themes that you get even more confused. In most cases, it’s not a simple solution.
Since there are literally thousands of themes out there, I have chosen to use some specific themes that I have either used myself, for clients or have reviewed here on BobWP. Even though these may not be the themes you decide upon, each lesson will give you a better understanding of what to look for when choosing a theme.
The World Of WordPress Themes
What is a Theme?
A theme is a collection of templates that allows your WordPress site to have a specific design and look. The theme includes all the different layouts of the pages and your homepage, which may be your blog or another unique layout. It also controls all the color and fonts that everyone sees when they visit your site.
Finding a theme that works is a challenge (mainly because of the overwhelming number of them out there). For example:
There are currently (as of the date of this post) over 200 free themes and a bit under 200 premium themes to choose from.
More than 3,900 free themes.
If you google WordPress themes, you will get more than 9 million results. Of course, this includes posts written about themes as well, but it does give you an idea of the sheer numbers of free and premium themes out there beyond WordPress.com and WordPress.org.
When you start searching for themes, you will find all sorts of them that are niche-specific, for example, photography, magazine and portfolios. Others may be focused on membership sites or online learning. There are themes geared towards non-profits and churches and broader business areas, like real estate and eCommerce.
The mistake people often make when looking at theme demos is focusing too much on the name of the theme. Sure, often a theme is built with that particular industry or profession in mind. But don’t get stuck on the name. If you see a theme that catches your eye, just imagine your content in there. I cannot tell you the number of times I have designed sites for clients in the past, such as architects, attorney’s or business coaches and used a church theme.
When you click on the navigation bar of some themes, you will be taken to a specific place on the homepage. Of course, you are able to add additional pages, but they do have a different feel to them.
Parallax is the word used to describe the difference in the apparent position of an object when viewed from two different vantage points. A good example of this, taken from Wikipedia, is the apparent position of a speedometer needle in a car.
When viewed from directly in front, the speed may show exactly 60; but when viewed from the passenger seat the needle may appear to show a slightly different speed, due to the angle of viewing.
Okay, enough of the boring technical talk. In web design, or on WordPress themes, parallax is a special effect: an optical illusion achieved by animating multiple layers of background and foreground images at different speeds to give the impression of depth. The resulting variations in a user’s point of view as they scroll past these images is what we call “the parallax scrolling effect”. If you want to see a review of a theme we did that is a one-pager plus parallax, you can check that out here.
A couple of other popular theme designs are the parent and child theme and theme page builders. You will learn more about both of these later in this post.
Responsive Design Themes
If you are in the process of choosing or changing your theme, this is a good time to make sure it’s mobile-responsive. Because of the popularity of mobile use, most themes are now designed for this. A responsive theme will resize and reorganize your homepage on different screen sizes to make it more user-friendly. Gone are the days of pinching the window and moving things around. The best way to test any theme is to view the demo on different sizes. Resize the browser window on your desktop or laptop. Then if you are able to, view it on your smartphone and/or tablet. You will notice that a lot of themes, once they are sized down, use what’s call the hamburger menu. In the screenshot below you can see the different views of the Community Pro Child theme.
If it is not possible to change your theme, you can use a mobile plugin. If you are using Jetpack, it has a module to help you. If not, consider checking out WPTouch, a plugin that uses its own mobile theme. In other words, your sites will look different on mobile compared to the desktop version. This plugin gives you the opportunity to build a custom homepage for mobile, something much simpler and more easily accessible via a mobile device.
The Case Against Plugins
Some people, especially designers, dislike mobile plugins because it takes something away from the aesthetics of your site, or, on occasion, the brand of your site. But realistically, you can still work your brand into the plugins theme. Consider this. If you are a restaurant, when someone calls you up on mobile, they may not need access to your entire site. They want to be able to easily find things like phone number, address, hours and menus.
Case in Point
Here is an example. I was working with a towing company. Their homepage had content about their staff and their services. They also had a gallery with photos of car wrecks they had assisted with. They needed to go mobile, but didn’t want to spend the money changing their theme. So I installed and set up WPTouch. Their first reaction was they were very disappointed that the car wreck gallery wasn’t on the homepage as well as some other content. I had simply listed their name, logo, location, areas served and phone number.
So I asked them this.
I am driving along in a snow storm. I slide off the road and end up in six feet of snow. It’s cold and I am late for a party. When I pull out my smartphone and do a search for a towing company, do I care about background on their company or the photo gallery of car wrecks? No! I just need to know if they serve the area I am in and how to reach them.
They chose to go with the plugin.
Visit WPTouch to learn more about that plugin and watch some videos on what it can do to make your site more mobile-friendly.
How Do I Know What Theme a Site is Using?
Often, when we are collecting ideas for our own site and come across come across other sites we love, it is impossible to know it’s a WordPress site and what theme was used. There are a couple of handy resources to find out which theme a site is using simply by putting in the UR at What WordPress Theme Is That? or WordPress Theme Detector. And if you want to know even more about the site, try Built With Technology Lookup.
One thing to be aware of when using these kinds of tools. First, the theme may be a fully customized job and renamed. Second, if someone has modified or customized an existing theme, you will not always know that. So it’s still a good idea to google the theme and compare it to the demo.
Where To Look for WordPress Themes
You can find free themes within your dashboard, as well as all over the web. As pointed out in Lesson 1, there are thousands and thousands of themes.
In Your Dashboard
You can search all the free themes on WordPress.org directly from your dashboard under Appearances > Themes by clicking on Add New.
There is a search box as well as a list of Featured, Popular and Latest themes and any you have marked as Favorites on WordPress.org. You can also filter them by Colors, Layout, Features and Subject when searching.
Who Sells Them?
You basically have three different kinds of sites that sell themes.
These are sites that are run by companies whose sole focus is selling themes. They come in all sizes and are popping up all the time. These sites are serious about their theme sales and rely on providing a quality product and strong support. Not all theme shops are equal, and like any business, there are some that outweigh the competition in terms of quality and customer service.
These are sites where developers can sell their own themes. An example of this is ThemeForest.com. The challenge here is that even though the theme site owner oversees what themes are sold, it is still a gamble of some sorts. My experience has been when looking for a theme there, really pay attention to the ratings, the support and also feel free to ask friends if they know of any on a particular site or perhaps a dev you know and trust is selling themes there as well.
These are sites that are reselling other people’s themes. According to the GPL license of WordPress this isn’t against the law but, there is a lot of gray area there, as well as some ethical issues. Often a reseller will undercut the price of the theme developer. For example, the owner of the theme will sell someone a copy of a developers license for $99. That person, who now has the license and with it, unlimited copies, will resell it over and over again for $49. Keep in mind that if you buy your theme from a reseller, you do not own the license. That means that you cannot get support directly from the theme vendor— and you are taking legitimate business away from him or her. I would recommend that you not use these services. If the price is too good to be true, then it probably is.
Small Shops and Developers
Small shops and developers will sell their themes on their own site. But remember that the theme is only as good as the developer.
Your best bet when purchasing a theme is to purchase it from someone you know and trust or get recommendations from a person that you know and trust.
An Overview of the Different Kinds of Themes
As I’ve talked about in previous lessons, there appears to be a theme for everyone. They can be labeled as business or blogging themes. You can find themes for magazine style layouts or single page layouts. Realtors, photographers and musicians will find themes focused on them.
A Few Examples
In this guide, I will show you a bit more of the insides of a theme and the features and settings you might find. But in the next few screenshots, I want to share with you some standard layouts.
Every WordPress theme seamlessly includes a blog if you choose to use it. But a lot of themes are more blog-centric. What I mean by this is the homepage is designed to highlight the blog and present your latest posts on that page in a specific layout. Typically it’s your latest posts and you might have one or two sidebars. The Eleven40 Pro Child Theme is a perfect example.
On the other hand for you blog, you may want something more visual. Check out this review I did on the Solopreneur Theme for Professional WordPress Bloggers. You will see how they can really vary.
The Magazine Style
You will see a lot of WordPress themes that bring in the style of a magazine or newspaper layout. These homepages are often generated by categories and posts. They give you a perfect way to present organized content to your readers and visitors. Also, like a standard blog homepage, it keeps your homepage fresh with new content from the posts you create.
BobWP uses the News Pro Child Theme here. But, with these kinds of themes you can also get creative and not just use them for a magazine-style layout. Let’s say you are a professional photographer. The theme I am using here could easily be used for their business site. The larger top area could include a slider of different images. The other elements could pull in recent posts around the areas you specialize in. For example, Urban Photography, Landscape Photography, Portrait Photography, etc.
The key here is to think outside the box and find ways that a theme can work best for your site.
The Business Site
Now there are thousands of themes that will work for your business depending on your needs. In fact, themes that are not labeled or categorized for businesses can still work. As I have mentioned before, I cannot tell you how many times I have used a theme named church or nonprofit for a businesses.
The following example is the Agency Pro child theme. It’s very business oriented with a focus on one concept at the top. It also is very visual, and the six images could be anything from products you are selling to six services you provide. And lastly, it has the option to pull in your latest posts, so if you do have a blog, it’s a great way to add some fresh content to your homepage.
As I mentioned previously, you will come across a lot of themes specific to an industry. For example, a couple of theme reviews on our site will will give you an idea of this kind of a theme. Here is the ROSA Restaurant theme and the Sonsa theme, more for photo centric sites. But again, remember, you may find a theme that is named specifically for a certain industry, but it likely can work for a lot of other businesses as well.
Long, Long Homepages
If you have any marketing background or have read a lot about website design, you have probably run across the above-the-fold rule. What this means is that your most important content and/or message should be at the top. It comes from the term of a folded newspaper. And that is still very true.
But also it used to be considered bad design to have a long, scrolling homepage. Well, not anymore. There are those one-page themes as I mentioned before that when clicking on a navigation button, you are taken to a different part of your homepage instead of an inside page. The fact is, people don’t mind scrolling anymore. In fact, they are very used to it. A lot of this has evolved from using mobile devices. No one gives a second-thought to scrolling on their smartphone.
This doesn’t mean you should fill your homepage with superfluous content. It means that if you have the right content, and it makes your page longer, that is not an issue anymore.
What Is a Parent and Child Theme?
One of my most popular analogies when describing a parent and child theme is this:
Think of your car. The engine runs it all. But the body? You can paint it a new color, you can replace the upholstery on the seats, add a steering wheel cover, and get those shiny, cool new wheels. It now looks different, but still runs the same. You haven’t touched the mechanics of it. Just the look.
Now let’s look at the technical part and use the popular Genesis theme from StudioPress as an example. It’s the parent theme. And if you go to StudioPress.com you will find a variety of child themes. For the developer, it’s great. Genesis is the framework, and the other themes are what makes it look nice.
All sorts of WordPress themes have child themes being built left and right. In fact, one of my my favorite eCommerce themes from WooThemes is the free theme Storefront. It too has several child themes.
On the WordPress codex, they say this:
A WordPress child theme is a theme that inherits the functionality of another theme, called the parent theme, and allows you to modify, or add to, the functionality of that parent theme.
This is good news. In the past if you bought a theme and had someone do any customization to it, when the theme updated, those customizations could be overwritten and lost. So some developers told their clients, don’t update.
But that’s not good advice.
Now with the parent and child themes, you can modify the styling and layout of the parent theme without touching it, by using a child theme. And when you update the parent theme, those changes aren’t lost, as the child theme isn’t touched. Make sense? In fact, this has made the whole concept of customized themes so much easier for the end user to manage.
- If you are brave enough, you can create your own child theme from practically any theme out there. But you will need to be comfortable with code. There are several tutorials that you can find by Googling it, but here is one example over on WPBeginner.
- If you are a user that maybe doesn’t want to mess with code, you can try a plugin like the Child Theme Creator that allows you to quickly create child themes from any there you currently have installed.
- If you have a developer customize a theme for you, insist that they create a child theme so you will not lose customizations when updating your theme.
- If you want a flexible theme that also allows you to easily create a child theme with a built-in feature, consider giving Baton Pro theme a shot.
Theme Setup and Functionality
As I said before, there are so many themes and how you set them up and the features you get are all over the board. No one size (or tutorial) fits all. We have several reviews on our site that take you through some various themes that I recommend you check out. These will give you a good, broad representation of some very different approaches to some theme functionality. Also, the Genesis child themes are unique as instead of a series of sections with settings for the homepage, instead if relies on building your homepage on a lot of their themes using widgets. Consider it’s like a puzzle piece. In fact, when looking at a Genesis child theme, don’t fixate on what the content is but rather how it is laid out and how your content will fit into it.
The fact is, you can get really creative with the Genesis child themes. We have several tutorials on our site here that are broken up into three areas.
- A video that shows you what you can do and easily do with a theme without knowing code.
- A video that shows you how to set it up to look like the demo, but also give you tips on other creative ways you can use the theme
- Text and screenshots highlighting the setup video.
What Are Page Builders?
Page builders come in two varieties.
- Theme Page Builders
- Page Builder Plugins
Both have the same marketing message: Build a custom site by simply dragging and dropping without knowing code. And that’s very true, but most do have a bit of a learning curve, some more than others.
Theme Page Builders
A lot of theme page builders promise that you can create a custom site from scratch without knowing a single bit of code. And while that’s not terribly far from the truth, what they don’t explain is the learning curve behind the theme. You might be asking, “Well, doesn’t every theme have a learning curve?” That’s true, but from experience, I have found that more people struggle with wrapping their brain around a theme builder vs. an out-of-the-box theme. Of course it all depends on you: how easily you learn this kind of stuff and what your expectations are.
Who Should Use a Theme Builder?
I don’t typically recommend a page builder for a single site owner. While they are lured into the idea of creating a custom site themselves, in the end, they don’t have the time to do it or the design skills to create a user-friendly, functional site. But at the same time, if you have the desire to get a site you want almost exactly, and are willing to take some time to set it up, go for it.
These theme builders are popular with designers who want to create custom sites for clients without having to learn a lot of code. Of course, this depends on the level of the designer’s skill, too.
A word of warning here, too, for designers using a theme builder:
1. Make sure you know what might happen to your original design when handed off to the client. They may take it on themselves to learn how to make some fairly major changes.
2. Educate your clients on the functionality of the page builder. I cannot tell you how many times someone has come to me in total frustration because their site has been handed over to them with little or no explanation of how to use it. An example of this is someone who knows the basics of editing a page in WordPress, only to be confronted with a tool they cannot use to make the smallest change.
Example of Some Theme Page Builders
We actually have two different reviews on our site here where we walk you through this kind of a theme. A couple of them actually incorporate a page build plugin with them as well to extend the functionality. I would suggest check our these reviews on Baton Pro and 18Tags Pro.
Page Builder Plugins
On the other side of the coin are page builder plugins. The main difference here is that you are using these plugins to create custom layouts for pages within your current theme. There are several out there—both free and premium plugins.
A few you may want to check out that I have had experience with is Conductor, Pootle Pagebuilder Pro, and Beaver Builder. And If you would like to see more of what a page builder plugin looks like inside, check out our review of Forge: A Front-End Page Builder Plugin for WordPress.
Page Builder Plugins vs. Page Builder Themes
As I mentioned before, page builder themes have a big learning curve. It’s true that you will still need to learn how to use the plugins, but overall I have found them simpler and useful if you don’t want to be tied to one theme.
Pros and Cons of Page Builder Theme
You are able to do customizations and create the layout of your entire site without knowing code.
They have extended flexibility in how you control your site compared to a theme you use out of the box.
Most page builders have a fairly large learning curve.
With all the time it takes you to build that perfect site, you are locked into that theme. Content used in any of the page builder widgets will be lost when changing your theme.
If you are not a designer, you may build a site that looks great to you but is not user-friendly or—worse— is confusing to your visitors.
This is why many people tend to use
What Happens When I Change My Theme?
For most people who use WordPress, for any number of reasons, there comes a time when you think about changing your theme.
This is probably the most common reason. Your site is old and looks outdated.
Change of Focus
There are a couple of possibilities here. The most obvious is that you have changed your business completely or moving in a new direction with your business. Even small changes can affect the usefulness of your site: adding a service or two, starting an online course. All of these reasons can come into play in evaluating whether your site is still user-friendly and meets your new needs or it should be restructured.
Frustration with Layout
You may have settled on a theme a while back, but certain layout issues are restrictive. You decide you have put up with it long enough.
Although you can use plugins to make your site mobile friendly, this is one of the biggest reasons for changing your theme. You want one that is mobile-responsive and retains your site’s branding.
Whatever the case, many WordPress users don’t know what will happen when they change their theme.
What Happens To Your Content?
This is a question I am asked a lot. There are many things that can happen when changing your theme, but in reality, your content should be your number one concern. If you have 25 pages and 360 blog posts on your site, the thought of them evaporating is horrifying.
So let me give you a bit of reassurance.
When you click on All Pages, you see everything you created there. That isn’t going anywhere.
When you click on All Posts, same thing.
That content will remain when you switch out themes.
It may not show up in your navigation menus, but it’s still there. You just need to relocate those menus or find out where they went.
It may disappear from your homepage if your theme had certain features that pulled in content. But again, those posts and pages live on. It’s just a matter of taking that content that didn’t go anywhere and presenting it in a new way, using your new themes features.
But beware. There are some exceptions. Some themes have post types where you could lose your content. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Let’s say you are using a WooTheme. You have created some content in their custom footer area. You also used the Woo-specific plugin Features, that only works with WooThemes. When you change your theme, that content goes away with the theme. So if you are planning on using any content that you have placed directly into a theme setting, or a plugin that you will also be removing, copy the content and save it.
Another example is a slider. Some sliders that are built into themes will pull in text content from posts or pages you have created. But if you are using a slider where you have to put the content directly into a slider post, that is part of your theme, and that will disappear with the theme as well.
So to sum it up. All your regular pages and posts will keep their place in your dashboard. But any content that is set in any feature of your theme, could very likely disappear. Just give it a bit of thought and exploration before you switch themes and delete that old one. And most important, back up everything first.
What About the Design?
It is obvious that by changing themes you are changing the design as well. As I mentioned, your content, pages and posts, don’t disappear but they may no longer know where to go, especially on the homepage. So when changing your theme, the more features a theme has, moving from one to another, you are more likely to need a site redesign.
What you need to understand is that it all really depends on the theme you are currently using, and the theme you are switching to:
WordPress allows you to preview and very simply activate a new theme. While this doesn’t always represent what the final results will be, it can give you a good idea of what you can expect. Here is a screenshot of my preview of this site with the Genesis Executive Pro child theme. As you can see I would have some work to do because, just for starters, it appears that some widgets from my about page suddenly found new homes in the header.
Some Examples of Changing Your Theme
To give you an idea of what happens, I took my site some time ago (as you can see if really is different from now) and switched themes by pushing the activate button. In each sample you will see my site as it looks now (left), the theme demo I am switching to (middle), and lastly the results (right).
From WooThemes Hub to WooThemes Function
From WooThemes Hub to Genesis Enterprise Pro Child Theme
As you can see here this is pretty close to what you saw when I shared the screenshot when previewing this theme. When I switch to the Genesis Executive Pro child theme, since so many of the Genesis child themes homepages are comprised of a bunch of widgets, by switching to this theme, my current widgets I had set up just randomly spread themselves around.
From WooThemes Hub to Twenty Fifteen
Lastly, I thought I would attempt to activate the WordPress default theme since it’s a much simpler theme. But as you can see, things didn’t go too well, resulting in a fatal error.
So no matter which theme you switch from and to, you will have some work to do.
My Final Insights on Choosing a Theme
Here are a few highlights of what you have learned in this course.
Think of a Theme Demo as Puzzle Pieces
When you are looking at a WordPress demo think of it as a large puzzle, especially when looking at the homepage. Look at how it is broken up, the different sections it gives you, and how your own content will fit into those blank spaces.
Visualize Your Content
Don’t get distracted with the content they have in the demo. Imagine how your own content will look in it, whether it’s text or any other kind of media. Does the theme present content in a way that will make sense for your needs and how your readers react when they visit your site?
Don’t Fixate On the Name of the Theme
A lot of themes are named around a special niche, such as a profession or workplace. There are themes built for attorneys, realtors, churches, beauty salons, and many more. This does not mean that you cannot use them. There will be some special functionality built into these kinds of themes for the needs of that specific profession, but the chances are high that it will work for you as well.
Poke Around the Demo
Most themes don’t let you see the backend or settings via the demo. But they will show you different color schemes, page layouts and other options. Make sure to check out the navigation bar in the demo because that is where a lot of it can be found.
Read the Details on the Theme Features
Themes will have some kind of description with them, and often in that text lies some of the features (mobile responsiveness, etc.). Read through it word for word because it could hold the key—the critical piece—that helps you make that final decision.
Look at the Documentation
Most theme documentation cannot be accessed before purchase, which makes sense. If you happened to snag that theme from somewhere else without paying, it’s just fair that paying customers only get the documentation. But if they do share it with you—or you are going to use a free theme— look at it carefully. There could be some questions that get answered for you by looking through the step-by-step process.
Ask a Pre-Sales Question
Don’t get carried away, but if you have a question about a theme that is a make-or-break deal, send the theme shop or developer the question. They want to make a sale and aim to keep customers and potential customers happy. And obviously you may not get a quick answer if the theme is free. It will all depend.
Read Reviews Carefully
Googling for a review of a theme isn’t always the best solution— unless you know the person who is doing the review and you feel you can trust them. It is true that, by reading reviews, you may come upon something that will help you with the process. Just be careful as everyone’s experience is different. I’ve seen someone rant about a product that 99.9% rave about. All it takes is that one person.
And Lastly, Ask People You Know and Trust – But Don’t Expect the World
The WordPress community is known for being incredibly generous. But don’t take advantage of this. Often I see people go into groups on Facebook, for example, and say something like I am starting a photography site, can anyone recommend a theme? Likely you will get dozens of answers which won’t help you at all. Also, there is so many variables that involved no one can have the perfect answer for you. Remember how long it has taken you to look for a theme, don’t expect someone else to take the same amount of time. In fact, people use to pay me to find themes for them. So in a nutshell, ask for help but be careful and don’t set your expectations high.