Chapter 3. Introduction to WordPress Themes: Types of Themes

This is a chapter from my book “A Practical Handbook for WordPress Themes”. Keep reading here, or download the full Amazon Kindle version.

For [ .COM ] and [ WP ] (?)

In the previous chapter we went over the anatomy of a theme and dove into what you can expect in a theme package. For this chapter, we’ll get into the types of themes that are out there, and get an introduction to the pros and cons of each of these types.

Types of Themes

Themes can be broken down into four types:

  • purchased (or “premium”)
  • free (including “freemium”)
  • boilerplate (starter/developer theme)
  • full-custom

These “types” should not to be confused with the numerous categories that are used to help group themes based on design or function (e.g., ecommerce, corporate, nonprofit, magazine), which you will use when looking through a theme marketplace.

Why does knowing the types matter?

Understanding the types of themes helps you find the theme that will best suit your needs, and in some cases it will also help you decide where to look. Such as:

  • If you are looking for a theme that you can download today and that often comes with customer support, then you are likely looking to purchase a theme (or join a theme “club.”)
  • If saving money is the highest priority, then you may be looking for a free theme. (Note: Some developers also offer a “lite” version of their premium themes for free, and this can be a great way to test-drive the theme before you buy the full-featured version.)
  • If you are a developer or designer—with knowledge of coding, or are learning how to code—and want a jumpstart on developing a new theme, you are likely looking for a Boilerplate or Starter theme.
  • If you are looking for a theme with a custom design and layout that is not being used by anyone else, and/or require some custom features, you are looking for a Full-custom theme.

The following four sections will cover each type in detail. The next couple chapters will explain where to buy, find, and order themes, as well as how to buy the right theme for you.

Is one better than the other?

Yes. I will go over some pros and cons for each type in chapter 5. But ultimately, only you can decide which type is best suited for your needs.

Purchased Themes

Also called “Premium” themes, purchased themes are just that: themes you purchase from an online vendor for a one-time fee, or in some cases an annual fee (also called a Theme Club.) That vendor can be a freelancer, agency, or business with an online marketplace, though many (if not most) commercial themes created today are designed and developed by a single person.

These themes often come with free updates, documentation/instructions, dummy content to get you started (e.g., Posts, Pages, images), and support for when things go wonky. In some cases, there are video tutorials, support forums, and Photoshop files for the theme. Increasingly these types of themes also include plugins in the download, or include a list of mandatory and recommended plugins to use with the theme.

Support for these types of themes is varied. In the case of Elegant Themes, you must pay a yearly fee for their “Premium Technical Support”, whereas ThemeForest support is free from the theme’s developer. Elsewhere, I have seen a tiered support offered where you can pay more for faster service. One company, YIThemes, requires you to activate your theme to get access to the support forum.

No images. Keep in mind that the photos you see in the demos/previews often do not come with the theme package. In some cases they may be installed using the dummy content file. When shopping for a theme, think of it as a new photo album or scrapbook: you bring the contents.

Please note: “Premium” does not necessarily mean “high quality.” In the world of WordPress themes it’s a marketing term that simply means, “not free.” I have seen some amazing free themes, and have purchased some horrendous premium themes. Your due diligence, plus chapters 2 and 3, will help ensure you get a quality theme that will fit your needs regardless of whether it is a “premium” theme or not.

Free Themes

These are free-to-download themes that you can use without restrictions. But, there are also “freemium” themes where you download a theme that has limited features and functionality of another “premium” theme. The difference here is very similar to free versus “lite” apps that you download to your smartphone. You should expect the lite version to be more like a trial version, as they tend to have limited features.

Free

Free means that the developer is allowing you to download the theme without you having to pay for it. You can find free-to-download themes in the WordPress Theme Directory, on developer or freelancer websites, and on some company or agency sites that develop themes (they occasionally give one away as loss leader to get you to try it.)

I know it seems a bit much to have to describe what a free theme is, but these really are quite different than the “fremium” themes you will come across (which I’ll cover next.) Free themes are typically full-featured themes, and they range from drab and boring on up to absolutely stunning in design.

The main reason developers give away full-featured themes is to get noticed, especially when they are just starting out. It’s like a calling card or portfolio piece, and since they are free, word gets out and the numbers of downloads start to add up. Another reason to give them away for free is as a beta test—allowing people to download and use so developers can work out the bugs. Once the theme is stable, developers might decide a theme is good enough to be sold in a marketplace.

Freemium

These themes are often put out with the intent of you ‘test driving’ it. Meaning, the theme’s functions are limited in scope, and eventually you will be asked or prompted to purchase the full version.

This trial or lite version is not to be confused with demos or previews of themes where you are directed to visit a live version of a theme that is running on a website —typically with dummy content—to show how it works. The freemium theme is meant to be installed and activated on your site in the hopes that you like it and want to buy the full-featured version.

This is not just a WordPress theme concept, and the “freemium” model of doing business is not a new one. In fact, you probably use a freemium app or program every day. Sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Buffer let you use their app for free. If you want to get added features, better delivery rates, promoted posts, or be able to use it beyond a set period, you have to pay LinkedIn, Facebook and Buffer.

Searching for freemium themes. The term “freemium” is used in a derogatory way to describe the practice of creating a lite version of a premium theme. It’s not a positive marketing term like “premium” is, so no one really uses it to describe a theme. You may see terms like “lite,” or “trial”, but not freemium.

Because of this, you may have issues doing a web search for “freemium” themes depending on the search engine you use. For example, (at time of writing) when using the search phrase “freemium WordPress themes” Yahoo delivers results that actually use the term “freemium”, whereas Google ignores what you typed and searches for free premium WordPress themes. Not the same thing. I recommend using quotes around your Google search to avoid this problem.

Boilerplate Themes

Boilerplate themes are also called starter or developer themes. Do not confuse “starter theme” with one that you should start with as a person new to WordPress. They mean starter in the same way a baker does: something that is already prepared (fermented, as in the case of sourdough) to get the development started a bit faster. If you have ever seen a hot rod rolling chassis, boilerplates are a lot like that: a lot of structural parts preassembled and waiting for all the custom, pretty parts to get added.

Not minimal. Boilerplate is not the same as the term “minimal” that you will see bandied about when describing themes. In that sense, the design is minimal in that it is sparse with little to no visual elements (though it could be feature-minimal, too.)

Developers that use boilerplate themes benefit from the work of one or a dozen other developers who have produced a lightweight and tested option for theme development, as opposed to starting to build a theme from scratch. Some boilerplate themes like Skeleton, Bones, and Roots have gone through numerous revisions and are now really solid, economically viable starting points for developers doing custom themes. In some cases, theme developers have their own boilerplates they created over the years.

For those of you looking to design and develop your own theme, I highly recommend starting with one of the themes mentioned above. Documentation with boilerplate themes is typically extensive, produced with the intention of arming people with enough information to customize the theme’s code, whereas inline developer documentation with premium themes can sometimes be sparse or missing.

No updates! And here is where I contradict myself. Throughout this book I say, “keep your theme up to date” over and over to the point of you getting sick of it. And for good reason (which we will get into later.) With boilerplate themes though, a developer typically modifies (“forks”) the original theme files, so you cannot update the boilerplate theme as you would a free or premium theme. Again, in the analogy of a baker’s starter for sourdough, the boilerplate becomes so integral to the theme it cannot be separated later.

Full-Custom Themes

It is important to differentiate “full-custom” themes from “customized” themes (also called “agency themes” by some), which are premium, or free themes redesigned and or recoded for a client.
Full-custom themes typically start with a boilerplate theme (see above), but some are created from scratch where the developer hand codes every line of the theme to suit your needs. The latter is not often the case, because starting with a boilerplate theme is fairly common practice and saves the developer a tremendous amount of time.

In the case of custom themes, your features are, for the most part, only limited by your budget and the ability of the developer. This is different from premium themes where the features are already chosen for you.

What Makes Each Theme Unique?

I don’t really want to compare themes to fingerprints or snowflakes, but each one really is individual and unique. Depending on who coded it, the purpose of it, and when they coded it, the theme could be very different from the previous one they built. In fact, 100 developers could code 100 themes based on the exact same Photoshop design file, and they would all be coded 100 unique ways.

With each WordPress Core update comes more changes, and theme developers need to stay up to date with all the new changes to the actions, filters, functions, APIs, loops, hooks and more. These changes, for better or worse, have an impact on how themes are developed over time.

Built on standards; unique by parameters

While I said all themes are unique, they are essentially built using a collection of standards set by WordPress.org. Consider each standard 1-5 lines of code, like this tag that displays the title of a Post or Page:

<title><?php wp_title(); ?><title>

Above is the bare minimum a developer needs to make it work, but many of these have parameters and other customizations to enhance them. Developers can express the above tag in different ways, such as:

<title><?php wp_title( '|', true, 'right' ); ?><title>
<title><?php wp_title('|'); ?><title>

Without going into details here, you can see that WordPress.org sets the standards for theme development, and it is up to the developer to expand on it to suit their needs or client’s requests. Some of these can be used together to create a string of information, such as:

<title><?php wp_title('|'); ?></title>

Without knowing a single thing about PHP code, you can start to understand that the outcome of your data depends on the way your theme was crafted. In the example above, search engines will see the title of the page followed by the name of your blog like this:

A great page about squirrels | Tristan Denyer’s Awesome Website

These details matter

The reason I am going this deep into how a developer crafts a theme is that you will be judged on it every time Google and other search engines visit your site. How these search engines “see” the structure of your website is the heart of SEO. If it is haphazardly crafted without any thought to order and what search engines prefer/expect to see, your site’s ranking will suffer because Google or Yahoo would have a hard time properly indexing your web pages.

Good theme developers know not only how to code the theme to deliver the right information, but how to display the pieces in a logical order for humans and search engines, and also know when enough information is enough.

The invisible design. There is a side of theme development that goes unseen, is rarely talked about, but makes up the bulk of good theme development. Most people experience the look and feel of the theme or the multitude of features made available in the Admin Panel. What is often unsaid or forgotten is the effort that went into all the choices that made that theme great.

Many themes sold in marketplaces today are designed and developed by one person. This person designs the user experience (UX), the user-interface (UI), the structure of the SEO opportunities, the information architecture (IA), the interaction design (IxD), and in some cases custom Theme Options screens in the Admin Panel, the demo/preview website, as well as the theme’s marketing pages/website.

After all that, we haven’t even talked about the actual coding of the theme yet, or the time they spend researching the theme market ecosystem for what customers want as well as what WordPress.org is working on for the next release. What you see above is often the only part of the theme you actually enjoy and experience. The 30 to 300-plus hours it takes to code, test and support a theme are minor in comparison to the hundreds of hours spent keeping up on that list of things that really make the theme interesting and modern.

During the process of designing the UX, UI, SEO, IA, IxD and so on, numerous choices have to be made about what code to use, as we talked about previously. Choose the wrong parameter or variable, and it can have a great effect on the UX, UI, SEO, IA, IxD, as well as how successful the theme will be in the marketplace to buyers like you.

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