Chapter 5. Getting the Right Theme for You

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 chapter 3, I described the four types of themes (purchased, free, boilerplate, and full-custom.) In this chapter I will cover how to find the right theme for you based on these theme types.

This is by far the hardest concept to convey to people. Like buying a house, there is no single, straightforward way to do it that covers all the buying decisions you will face. Since listing every possible way is near impossible, we’ll be covering an entry-level approach to finding a theme that should cover the vast majority of users (even if you don’t consider yourself “entry-level.”)

Before you begin with this chapter, make sure you understand how Parent and Child themes work (chapter 1.) Not all themes are structured this way, but if you choose to use this method some of the caveats below in regards to swapping out themes may not apply.

[ .COM ] For those of you on the WordPress.com platform, know that you are limited to themes found in the WordPress Theme Directory. Go to the Themes screen in your Admin Panel under Appearance > Themes. (As of 3.8) you will see sections for “Trending,” “Popular,” “Newest,” “All,” “Free,” and “Premium.” Boilerplate themes, externally developed custom themes do not apply to you; they are only available to self-hosted website users. You are also limited in the plugins you can use.

Before You Start: Plugins

Before you jump into finding a theme that fits your list of requirements, know that you may need to supplement your theme with some plugins. Not all themes will be able to do everything on your list.
In the case where you find a great theme that is missing a feature (or three) from your list, a plugin (or three) can add that functionality to your theme.

Plugins are outside the scope of this book, but can be important to some themes. So, I have to point you in the right direction for now and cover them in an upcoming book. Until then, you can follow these steps to finding a plugin to add functionality to your theme:

  1. Visit your Admin Panel’s Plugin screen (Plugins > Add New > Search) or https://wordpress.org/plugins/ and use the search box to find the functionality you need. For example: If I want to add SEO controls to my site, I do a search for “SEO” (without quotes.)
  2. In the Admin Panel’s list of results, click on the “Details” link under the name (or click the name) to view the plugin details to do some basic research on the plugin. You are looking to see if it does what you need it to do.
  3. While in this detail page, review the ratings. Does it have enough ratings with a certain level stars to make you feel okay in using it? (I tend to be a 4-star and up kind of person, but know that sometimes a great plugin gets 3 stars.)
  4. Now check out the tabs along the top for more details about the plugin. Pay special attention to the “Installation” tab to make sure you know how to install it (some have special installation steps.)
    If you like what you see, click “Install Now.” Then activate the plugin. PRO TIP: Always back up your site before you activate plugins. See chapter 7.
  5. You should check your site to make sure the functionality you desired is working. Know that some plugins require you to do additional steps to get the plugin working on your site.

If you don’t find a plugin via the Admin Panel search method above, you will likely need to do some web searches to find WordPress plugins outside the WordPress Plugin Directory that fit your needs. The key here is to include the words “WordPress plugin” along with the functionality you are looking to add. For example: If I want to add SEO controls to my site, I do a Google search for “WordPress plugin SEO” (without quotes.)

The steps for researching plugins via a web search can be varied and beyond the scope of this book. Though, you could start by using the same due diligence as I’ve listed out previously in this section, and then take steps similar to what you would do when researching premium themes (see below.)

A Purchased Theme

Where to purchase a theme

Purchased themes (or “premium” themes) are often sold via the developer’s website or in online marketplaces. Let’s first go over the main differences:

A developer’s website selling themes:

  • Is typically owned and managed by a freelance developer or company of developers and designers
  • Will showcase a small- to medium-sized collection of themes they developed
  • Will support only the themes they designed and developed. Though, some may be for hire to help design and develop a custom theme.
  • Examples are WooThemes and Elegant Themes.

An online marketplace selling themes:

  • Can be owned/managed by non-developers and developers (much like a boutique selling dresses can be owned/managed by people who don’t know how to sew, but have a conversational grasp of its construction and materials.)
  • Typically relies on freelance developers and companies to upload themes to sell.
  • Will showcase a medium- to massive-sized collection of themes.
  • Will support only the themes they designed and developed. Though, some may be for hire to help design and develop a custom theme (but work for hire will need to take place outside the marketplace.)
  • Examples are ThemeForest and Mojo Themes.

For self-hosted WordPress installations, you typically buy the theme via a marketplace, download it immediately and install it on your site (see chapter 8 for installing a theme.)

For WordPress.com users, you cannot upload themes, so you are limited to themes found in the WordPress theme marketplace via the Themes screen in your Admin Panel under Appearance > Themes > Premium link.

Prepare yourself

Just going to let you know up front that researching premium themes takes time. Definitely more than 10 minutes. A more realistic timeframe is about two hours, possibly more depending on any particular requirements you/your client has for a site.

What? Two hours or more?! Know that there are dozens of websites selling themes, each with dozens—sometimes hundreds—of themes for sale. Some have you sort through the collection by only seeing thumbnail images of the theme; others only show you great lists of features without the thumbnail image. You are going to have to click through most of these to see the theme in action.

Every theme is different, so you will be spending a lot of time taking their themes for a ‘test drive’ by viewing their preview websites. During this time you will likely get lost in all the cool features you never knew existed. That can cause the list we made in chapter 4 to change (which is okay, to an extent.) And that can cause you to have to visit themes again to see if they now fit your new list.

Give yourself a good solid window of a couple hours for looking through themes. Ten minutes here and there will not suffice as proceeding in that fashion is more likely to land you with a real dud of a theme.

How to shop for premium themes

Shopping for premium themes is like shopping for shoes. Many of you have bought a pair of great looking shoes only to find out they hurt your feet. You likely knew better while trying them on in the shop, but thought they would break in. Your feet don’t always win, and when it comes to themes there is no break-in period, it either works or it doesn’t. (One exception is if you plan on customizing the theme with a Child Theme, we will get into that in chapter 13.)

I wish all theme marketplaces worked like Amazon.com with filtering capabilities that allow me to select/deselect features and styles until I am left with a short list to go through. Unfortunately that is rarely the case, making the search harder.

To help guide you through the assorted marketplaces, the following list outlines how I shop for themes on most sites. (Grab your laptop/desktop and a tablet or smartphone if you have one, since you will want to see what any given theme looks like across these devices.)

  1. Start by understanding that almost every theme out there can make a decent to great website, but not every theme is right for you. Knowing that, you are shopping by eliminating themes that don’t work for you. Be critical and look for reasons a theme is NOT a good fit for your feature requirements, brand, and visitors.
  2. Now, figure out which device matters most to you (Desktop? Mobile? Tablet?) If your website has to look amazing on a smartphone—or better yet, you know that is how most of your customers will be viewing it—then have it nearby so you can send preview/demo links to it and see how it responds to the smaller screen. PRO TIP: using the Ghostlab App can greatly speed up this comparison process of viewing themes on numerous devices at once.
  3. Start with reputable websites and marketplaces that specialize in WordPress themes. If a theme marketplace looks cheap and slapped together, leave and go to another—their support and quality is likely cheap and slapped together, or worse, it could be a consumer honeypot set up to get you to download compromised themes (more on this below.)
  4. If the website has a search box (like ThemeForest,) try typing in your most important feature, such as “Twitter feed” or “video gallery.” If there is no search box, go to step 5.
  5. If available, look for a submenu where you can narrow the list down to a category. These categories could be titled “eCommerce”, “Magazine”, “Portfolio”, “Business” and more. These are typically categorized by their design style, but some are based on specific theme features, such as having a store and checkout in “eCommerce.”
  6. At this point, you should be presented with a manageable list of themes. If you are on a website such as Elegant Themes that lists them as thumbnails, or on one such as Theme Forest that lists details instead of an actual thumbnail, get ready to open dozens of pages.
  7. From the list of theme thumbnail images, select one that looks like it may satisfy your design style. Or, from the list of theme details, select one that looks like it may satisfy your feature list. You should now be on what is known as a “detail page” for the theme. Refrain from clicking on the “Preview” or “Demo” button: this will only waste time right now. On the detail page, read the details about each theme and compare that to your list in chapter 4. At this stage you will likely be ruling out themes very quickly because they don’t fit your mandatory feature requirements (example: you found the theme is not responsive for mobile devices, or it is only a forum, or it’s a single-page theme, and etc.)
  8. When you find a detail page with features that fit your requirements, look for the “Preview” or “Demo” button so you can view the theme in action.
  9. Now that the theme is in front of you, do your best to stay on task: you are looking for where this theme falls short or is problematic. Don’t get too caught up in all the cool features. Theme designers and developers know what sells, and they will fill these demos with the shiniest of things to lure you in to buying it. Stay critical, and keep to your list so you come out of this with a theme that fits your needs.
  10. Eventually you should have about 3-7 solid themes picked out. Be sure to save the URLs to their detail pages so you can visit them later. Even though one of these may be the one you purchase, it is a good idea to save links to the others that almost made it in the event that the one you bought doesn’t work out.

Preview Tips: Previews/demos are not always the same across all marketplaces. When shopping on the WordPress Theme Directory you will notice that the theme only shows 2-3 pages, and they usually look pretty stark in terms of content (probably to save space on WordPress’ servers. They have over 2,300 themes!) When viewing themes on marketplaces such as ThemeForest you can expect to see robust demo websites with numerous pages containing a lot of content. After all, their themes are stored on the developer’s server, and their intent is to get you to buy it.

How to choose one from the list

You now have a handful of themes to choose from. Buying all of them is not always an option, plus you certainly don’t want to install all of them (we’ll cover why in the following chapters.) It’s time to whittle it down to one or two themes to purchase. In short, you are looking for the theme that closely fits your list of requirements, looks good, and works well.

As we mentioned above, you may find a theme that looks great, works well, but falls a little short on the features. It’s time to do some research to see if there are plugins that can add that functionality back in. I recommend you search for plugins using the steps provided at the beginning of this chapter.
A theme that looks good and works well is a bit subjective. I tend to like minimal designs so pages load very fast, but that is really up to you. Put yourself in the shoes of your visitors and really take a step back to try and imagine what they will think of the design and the way it works. Ask a friend or colleague to view the preview/demo to give you feedback.

My recommendation is to not spend too much time trying to meet every feature requirement on your list. Many of them can be solved using a plugin. In fact, as I’ve said before, having a feature like a Twitter feed or online store that’s powered by a plugin is a much smarter move than having the theme do it.

Pros of “premium” themes:

  • Options and customization: The biggest draw to these types of themes are the myriad options and controls the developer builds into the theme, which for some users makes it very easy to customize without having to know any code. As features (such as slideshows and Twitter feeds) and options (such as background images and Google Fonts) become more popular, developers add them to the themes to make them more attractive to buyers. In the vast majority of cases, customizing a theme is done through the theme’s options tab in your site’s Admin Panel. In rare cases, you may be asked to select the theme customizations before you purchase/download it.
  • You own it: once the purchase is complete and the theme is downloaded, you can install it on your site. You are not under contract to the seller, meaning you can do whatever you want with that theme. And they cannot take it back, or repossess it. In fact, this goes for all themes because of the way WordPress is licensed. Do a web search for “WordPress themes GPL license” (no quotes) for more information on this hotly debated topic.
  • Support / forums: Premium themes often come with direct support from the developer, or a community forum where other members may be able to answer your questions. Sometimes both. Most support I have seen comes in the form of email, forums or instant messaging (IM.) Do not expect 24-hour customer support via a phone number.
  • New features: To me, this is a pro and a con. The pro side is that if you have a particularly eager and responsive developer behind the theme you bought, you could end up seeing new and exciting features being added to your theme’s updates. Things like an Instagram or Vimeo gallery, or even extending the functionality to existing features to be used as widgets in sidebars where they once couldn’t go. For the con side, see “Feature Bloat” below.

Features and options vs. plugins. When starting out in WordPress it can be a bit tricky to wrap your head around the difference between a theme feature/option and a plugin. And more importantly, what this means to your database and your ability to swap out your theme with another. I cover this in detail in chapter 11.

Caution: In some cases where you make a request for support, I have seen developers ask for access to your site so they can inspect it and fix the problem. This is normal for some problems, which is why you should only deal with reputable marketplaces. Never give them your log in info, but instead make a new user with admin access. You can remove this user later.

Always completely backup your site and store the backup files in a safe place before you give another person access.

Cons of “premium” themes:

  • The everything omelet: (slightly different than ‘feature bloat’ below) Some developers have a belief that the theme’s sales will skyrocket if it can do everything (and that may be true.) So, s/he puts in every conceivable option and feature they know of into the theme. You may see 2-4 different ways to embed fonts (Google, Cufon, CSS), each with long lists of fonts to choose from. Some come with “50+ custom background” image choices and half a dozen icon styles in 12 colors, and over a dozen social media badges… you get my point. Be wary of themes that come with a million choices for everything. All of that comes with a lot of code to control it and render it, meaning your theme may require much more maintenance and attention from the developer. Which if you decided to go that route, would be another reason to choose a theme developer that offers amazing support and continually updates their themes.
  • The exploits are well known, and easy to find: There are a few things about these marketplace themes that make it a lot easier for people to hack WordPress sites. One is that some popular themes are sold to tens of thousands of people. Once an exploit (a weakness or backdoor in the code) is found in a theme—like the infamous timthumb.php exploit—it can be easily found on everyone else’s site that has the same theme installed. It doesn’t have to be activated, just installed (see chapter 8 and chapter 9 for the technical difference in the two terms “installed” and “activated,” respectively.)
  • Update notifications don’t always work: While WordPress.com users can enjoy the fact that all of their themes have update notifications, know that not all self-hosted themes have the ability to alert you to an update. Some developers of themes for self-hosted sites will employ code that checks the version of the theme and notifies the admin of an update via the Admin Panel (the same way plugins and default WordPress themes do.) Think about the exploit problem above, and couple that with the fact that your theme may have an update available but has not alerted you. The developer may have found and fixed the exploit, but how are you going to know without checking their site every day or signing up for their email newsletter? To counter this problem, before purchasing ask the developer if their theme checks for the latest version (this version check typically does not apply to Boilerplate and Full-custom themes since they are built as one-off creations.)
  • Feature bloat: The knock-on effect to new features being added to themes over time is that every new addition is more code your site has to load (as well as process, cache and backup, if you are doing so.) Depending on the feature added, and how the developer implemented it, this new code could be requested to load each time a page loads, even if you are not using the new feature anywhere on your site. The other side of this is that once they are coded into the theme some features may not be removed by the developer, even if that feature is now defunct.
  • “Free updates”: Some developers offer customers “free updates” for their themes, but these can often be limited to what are known as “dot upgrades”—an update from theme version 3.3 to 3.4, for example. In some cases, a developer/company may not support free theme updates for major releases, such as 3.9 to 4.0.
  • Limited support: the real shocker comes when you find out the theme has spotty or limited support. This is more common when you buy themes from large marketplaces since they are typically developed and uploaded by a freelancer (or single developer.) I’m not knocking freelancers in any way, but instead stating the very real fact that this person is likely developing themes as a side project to their full-time job. They are also human, so taking vacations and getting sick are a reality. If the theme/marketplace does not come with a forum where other customers can collaborate on problems, you are relying on one person to answer your questions and fix bugs in the theme. Do some serious research on support for your theme before you buy it.

Pricing and support models are shifting fast. While I believe the pricing in the premium theme market has always been absurdly low—and more of a race to the bottom type pricing model—the prices have been steadily going up as of late. The reason for this is that marketplaces and developers have relied on selling the themes at scale (at the thousands) for a reasonable price (about $30-50 each.)
Recently, marketplaces and developers have found this to be unsustainable when coupled with free support for those thousands of customers. Expect prices to rise to around $55-100 on average, or for more marketplaces to decouple support and go to a paid model for that.

The last word on purchasing a theme

Keep in mind that the developer wants you to buy the theme. And like any overeager salesperson or marketer they sometimes are—oh, how can we say this—a little loose with the details. I have seen the word “dozens” used to describe “20” items. Terms like “infinite”, “future-proof” and “bulletproof” get used a lot in this industry to make you feel good. Nothing in web design is “infinite”, “future-proof” or “bulletproof.” Look beyond the bullet points and start digging deep to see if it matches up to the list you made in chapter 4.

Know that each theme is in direct or near-direct competition with every other theme in that marketplace, and especially the free ones out there. As I said above, some developers will throw in every bell and whistle they know hoping it does everything on your list. That means there will likely be a few (or numerous) other options and features that you do not need, now or ever. This code is dead weight, and may cause potential conflicts with plugins you add down the road.

Look in the documentation for mentions of custom widgets that come with the theme. If you start using these widgets, know that whatever content you place in them is tied to the theme. Meaning, if you decide to start using a different theme, it will not migrate any of those custom widgets over—the widget code is part of the old theme.

Same problem exists for Custom Fields being used to display certain pieces of metadata on a Page or Post. As in the custom widgets case, this is coded in the theme files and will not migrate over to a new theme, even if your new theme comes with Custom Fields.

A Free Theme

Free themes are available in numerous places, from the WordPress Theme Directory, marketplaces, GitHub, developer sites and more. Some major theme marketplaces periodically give away a premium theme as a promotion.

Where to find a good, free theme

Check out the WordPress Theme Directory first. You can also get there via the Admin Panel: Appearance > Themes > Add Themes button. While the Directory is not the flashiest marketplace out there, it does have over 2,300 clean, well-built themes to choose from.

These are not made to impress buyers with every bell and whistle known to man, but instead are solid, clean themes. They often rely on you finding the right plugin to add functionality, like a Twitter feed (which I feel is the way themes should be built.) I also like the fact that they are “subject to review” by the WordPress Theme Review Team, as well as the WordPress community. This means infected, compromised and broken themes get rooted out.

Feel like that they aren’t worth your time? Think again. Check out the following free themes:

  • Irex Lite, by Tikendra Maitry, has “custom follow us and contact widget” and layout options. Check out Irex theme.
  • Responsive, by CyberChimps boasts “Theme features 9 Page Templates, 11 Widget Areas, 6 Template Layouts, 4 Menu Positions and more.” Whoa! Check out Responsive theme.

Reputable sites are great places to not only get info on WordPress but also get tips on where to find themes. Check out sites such as:

While I like to think the editors of Smashing, Torque and WP Tavern do their best to verify the themes and developers they promote, I would high recommend you always scan your free themes for malware and other problems immediately after you download them. We’ll go over this in chapter 8.

A good way to find bad or compromised themes (seriously, do NOT do this):

All you need to do is perform a web search for “free WordPress themes” (no quotes.) You will see dozens, if not hundreds, of places to get free themes from. Awesome, right? Well, not so much.

Some of these places are there for the sole purpose of getting you to download a theme that has links to pharmaceutical or porn sites embedded in it (a tactic known as Black Hat SEO.) It can get worse with some themes including malware that downloads crap to your visitors’ computers, or opens backdoors to your website. You don’t want either of these situations.

Learn more about free themes: Read this amazing “ultimate guide” on the good, bad and ugly sides of using “free” themes.

Truth be told, not all websites with the sole purpose of giving away free WordPress themes are bad. But, you need to know that there are a growing number of them that are malicious. It’s a classic “pig in a poke” scam where you think you go to buy/get a certain thing, didn’t look in the bag, and later found out you got something of lesser value, or worse. Many of these sites are preying upon your trust in the WordPress name to give away compromised themes that inject malicious code into your website. As we learned earlier, WordPress does not inspect and approve every theme out there—just the ones in the WordPress Theme Directory. Always open the bag: always scan your themes. We’ll go over this in chapter 8.

Ask yourself this: If there is a huge website, with hundreds of themes, all being given away for free, how are they making enough money to operate? The ads on the site’s pages? Maybe, but not likely enough. The themes aren’t the product, you are the product in that they likely want access to your website. As the saying goes: there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially hundreds of free lunches.

What about the developers?

As we have learned in chapter 2, themes are built by developers. And I’d estimate 99% of themes are built by people who don’t work directly for WordPress. Many developers sell themes in marketplaces, and or as work for hire, while some also give them away for free as working samples of their skills hoping to get more work from it.

When you come across a website of a developer giving away one or two themes as samples of their work, I highly recommend checking them out. One benefit to going this route is that it’s possible that far fewer people are also using that theme. A possible drawback to this is that the theme may not be actively maintained, in that they built it and posted it to their site but it’s not a top priority for them. If you like one of their themes, feel free to ask them if they are actively maintaining it so you can know what to expect.

How to properly shop for free themes (outside of the WordPress Themes Directory)

While I still think it is best to stick to the WordPress Theme Directory for free themes (or get them straight from developer’s websites), the call of the “free theme” may be too strong for you to deny. So, let me take a moment and help you do it properly.

Before you go stomping around in the uncharted waters of websites touting “free WordPress themes” make sure you have a good, up-to-date anti-virus program running on your computer. Some of these websites are using the search term “free WordPress theme” as link bait hoping to spread malware to visitors’ computers. Plus, I highly recommend you run a virus scan on any theme package you download to your computer.

You will likely shop for a free theme much the same way you do for premium themes (see “How to shop for premium themes” section above.) The difference is that you may not come across many sites that have previews/demos for you to test drive a free theme. Since they are not making money off the themes, they typically keep the marketing efforts to a minimum.

Scared yet? Don’t be. Just be cautious and very discerning about the sites you download themes from. In chapter 8 we’ll talk about how to check your new theme for hidden problems using a couple plugins.

So, in short:

  • update your anti-virus program on your computer (we talk more about this in chapter 6)
  • shop for a free theme much the same way you do for premium themes (see above)
  • have your anti-virus program scan all downloaded themes before you install them to your server
  • be sure to read the “What not to install” section of chapter 8 before you activate your new theme

Pros of getting free themes from the WordPress Theme Directory:

  • Cost: Well, we don’t need to go into how a theme being free is a real benefit, do we? 🙂
  • Availability: Free themes vastly outnumber premium themes on the WordPress Theme Directory. In fact, as a whole it is probably easier to stumble across free themes than premium ones.
  • Faster: Since you don’t have to mess with the purchasing of a theme we can remove the whole process of an online store and having to get your credit card out. Also, the whole tedious process of signing up for an account is usually gone (though some may make you sign up in order to get a free theme.)
  • Review process: The WordPress Theme Review Team reviews the themes that are submitted to the Directory before they are available to download. The review process is quite extensive and can be found here.
  • Support: Every theme from the Directory comes with a support page. If the developer is listening to the questions posted to the Support pages, they can work with you to get your issue resolved. Whether the developer is responsive or not, at least the community can respond to help you get your issue solved.

Cons of getting free themes from the WordPress Theme Directory:

  • Features: You may find that there are fewer feature-rich themes to choose from. And, if your website is on WordPress.com, you will not be able to supplement those features with a plugins not on the approved list.
  • Less documentation: The themes that come from the Directory do not have set up instructions and documentation anywhere near as robust as you will find with premium themes. Many of these are simply a short text document with no real instructions at all.
  • Support: Support is not mandatory for themes in the Directory. Before you use a theme, see if the developer is active in the Support threads by visiting the WordPress Theme Directory, searching for the theme by name, and while on the theme page looking for the green “View support forum” button. Look for topics that are labeled “resolved” as well as reading through a few topics to gauge the responsiveness of the developer.

Pros of free themes (from other than the Directory):

  • Cost: Again, it’s free!
  • Documentation: In some cases, documentation and setup instructions may be far better than the ones from the WordPress Theme Directory.
  • Availability: Free themes are quite easy to find with a simple web search.
  • Faster: Since you don’t have to mess with the purchasing of a theme we can remove the whole process of an online store and having to get your credit card out. Also, the whole tedious process of signing up for an account is usually gone (though some may make you sign up in order to get a free theme.)

Cons of free themes (from other than the Directory):

  • Cost: I bet you didn’t think I was going to repeat that one, did you? But, it’s true: the cost involved with getting a compromised theme can be staggering. Loss of data, loss of SEO, loss of visitors when they see a warning pop up in their browser saying your website ‘may harm their computer.’ To help protect against this read the “What not to install” section of chapter 8 before you activate your new theme.
  • Increased Risk: I pretty much hammered home the multiple risks involved with free themes in the paragraphs above.
  • Support: You can expect wildly varying levels of support for free themes from “no support” to fully supported, and even offering a tiered paid support structure.

The last word on using free themes

Seriously: stick to the WordPress Theme Directory, or get themes straight from reputable developers. Avoid sites dedicated to just giving away free themes. I cannot stress this enough!

A Boilerplate Theme

Where to find a boilerplate theme

As we learned in chapter 2, boilerplate themes are also called starter or developer themes, and are typically for developers to use to start with when they are creating a custom or full-custom theme. It is unlikely that many of you will ever download a boilerplate theme and use it as is—though the Bones and Roots themes are usable out of the box, just very stark.

Boilerplate themes typically come directly from the developer(s) that work on it. Like the two examples I linked to above, in virtually all cases the developer will create a site dedicated to the theme. Some post it on GitHub for the community to collaborate on the development.

Boilerplates are almost never seen in marketplaces like ThemeForest since their audience is likely not looking for a theme that needs further development work. Another reason is that some marketplaces have rules or guidelines for themes aimed to help end-users get a full-featured theme that works out of the box. The very nature of a boilerplate is driven by the technology to help the developer (WordPress Core; servers; browsers; new features of HTML5, CSS3 and APIs,) not to ensure a website owner gets every bell and whistle.

How to shop for boilerplate/starter themes

Do a web search for “WordPress boilerplate theme” or “WordPress starter theme” (no quotes.) If you compare your results to a web search for “free WordPress themes” (no quotes), you should see a big difference in how they are presented. Boilerplates are presented by developers for other developers and focus on the technology. Search results for free themes read like ads for some shady, back-alley used car lot.

When it comes to boilerplates, I recommend first reviewing the following four boilerplates. At the time of writing, they are actively maintained and very solid themes to start with:

  • Roots, by Ben Word — https://roots.io/ A very advanced and powerful boilerplate that I personally used during the development of a handful of custom themes. I found this to be very SEO friendly and one of the most actively maintained themes around.
  • Bones, by Eddie Machado — http://themble.com/bones/ I’ve used this theme as much Roots, and have found it to be very easy to work with.
  • _S, by Automattic — http://underscores.me/ Pronounced “Underscores”, this theme is brought to you by the fine folks at Automattic who also brought us WordPress.com and who contribute to WordPress.org. This is a very stark boilerplate, and may be too stark for some developers.
  • Basis, by Josiah Spence — http://codecarpenter.com/freebie/basis-a-wordpress-boilerplate-theme/ This is one I have yet to use in production. It does however go a little beyond boilerplate in that it includes Facebook Open Graph meta tags (something I leave to SEO plugins), the FitVids.js plugin (for responsive video embeds), and the debatable idea of using “no IDs, only classes” in the markup.

Whether you use one of the above four themes or some other one, you should start off by knowing what you need (or want to avoid) so you can start off with the right one. Here are few things to think about:

  • Do you need a boilerplate with zero- or minimal-styling? There are boilerplates that come with very basic styling to get the party started. Some developers may find that even minimal styling is too much, though depending on the project I feel it can help speed up development time.
  • Do you prefer using CSS preprocessors such as Sass or LESS? Some themes, such as Roots, come with LESS files, others just have the compiled style.css file.
  • Do you need (or want to avoid) a specific CSS framework, such as Twitter Bootstrap?
  • Do you need to hide the fact you are using WordPress from your source code? (Check out Roots for this.)
  • Do you need Facebook Open Graph, Twitter Cards, or microdata/microformats baked into the theme? While I believe the first two should be controlled using the Yoast SEO plugin (so it can be easily updated), the latter is up to you. I prefer greater control by hand-rolling my microdata/microformats into the theme, but there are some plugins to help you out.

If the four boilerplates above don’t work for you, a web search for “WordPress boilerplate theme” or “WordPress starter theme” should net you plenty to review. While I tell you not to do a web search for ‘free’ themes, I feel comfortable doing so with boilerplates. The target audience for these types of themes is developers, making it a bit tougher to get malicious code through. ‘Bad actors’ are looking for an easy target that has little to no experience finding out the theme is compromised.

Scan it all: While I love the work that went into the four themes above, and that I have faith they are made by competent developers, I still scan every theme I download regardless of who made it. I highly recommend you get in the habit of scanning everything before you upload it to your website. The ten seconds it takes to scan a theme beats the hours or days it takes to clean up a website, or repair your brand. See chapter 8 for ways to scan a theme.

Pros of boilerplate themes:

  • Cost: Free! I have yet to find one that you have to pay for.
  • Saves time: Some boilerplates really give a developer a huge jumpstart, and clear up many common problems that arise across different browsers and devices.
  • Developer documentation: They often also come with documentation in the code specifically for helping developers right where and when they need it.

Cons of boilerplate themes:

  • Not for everyone: While some boilerplates can come with a bit of minimal styling, they are typically not ready for a production website. Page layout, widgetized areas and other structural elements are often left up to the developer and designer. You also have to know how to code PHP, HTML5, and CSS in order to modify them.
  • Steep learning curve (sometimes): Some advanced boilerplates like Roots can really take theme development to the bleeding edge. This may also mean you (the developer) having to learn some new tricks. Again, in the case of Roots, they have a theme wrapper, a custom navigation menu walker, a plugin that allows you to use root relative URLs, and more. While I don’t necessarily think of these features as a con, per se, know that they can lengthen the learning curve, eating up some development time on the first go around with it.
  • No updates: By the very nature of being a starter or boilerplate theme, you will be getting in deep with the code and customizing it to suit your needs. Once you do that there is no updating the boilerplate since (in the vast majority of cases) you will not be able to separate the code you wrote from the boilerplate. At this point you update the custom theme you made as needed, whether or not the boilerplate gets updated.

The last word on boilerplate themes

Review and download 3-5 boilerplates before you start work on one. Open up the files and look at all of them to compare how they are structured. For my level of knowledge in PHP, I found Roots to have a steep learning curve, while Bones and Underscores was much easier for me to get started.

Some boilerplate themes may handle includes and template files very differently from what you are used to. Some may even handle file storage differently. With a little additional work you can effectively hide many traces of WordPress from the source code, if you need to.

Read the documentation for the boilerplate theme you plan on using before you start. Again, in the case of Roots there are some timesaving techniques and best practices that the developer has built into the theme.

A Full-Custom Theme

Custom themes don’t really exist in marketplaces. They are designed and developed to your specifications, and can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months (or longer) to deliver. In this case you are essentially looking for a developer, not a theme per se.

How to find a custom theme developer

Finding a developer that can deliver a custom theme takes time. While you can buy, download and install a theme from a marketplace in the matter of a few minutes, finding the right developer can take weeks. I’ll go over some tips on how to get the right one.

Know what you need before you start. Chapter 4 covers much of what you should have answered before you start looking for a theme developer. Some developers may have additional questions, but going into it with the chapter 4 questions sorted out can really speed up the process. It will also show the developer that you have thought this through and are more serious about the project than someone just asking, “how much is a theme?”

You will be using the chapter 4 answers to help build your request for proposal (RFP). But, let’s put the breaks on right there and mention that an RFP should NOT be the first thing you send a developer. Reach out to a developer or agency and

  • ask if they are accepting new work/clients
  • give them a three sentence summary of what you need (not a timeline of when you want it completed)

Example email: “Hello Jessica! I found your website while doing a search for WordPress theme developers and I really liked what I saw in your portfolio. Are you accepting new work/clients?

If so, I am looking for a WordPress theme that has space for an ‘About us’ section/page to help establish the owners as being knowledgeable, industry professionals. It also has an online storefront to sell skating goods, including being able to showcase, describe and categorize them. And a blog, too.
I would love to talk with you about designing and developing my custom WordPress theme.”

Finding a reputable developer. Since the bulk of your research may be online, you will need to be resourceful and cautious. Start with what you know by asking friends and colleagues for leads on developers they have used. Then work your way outward by using your connections on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (which may be tricky for some of you if you don’t want your previous developer or customers to know you are making a new site.)

My favorite suggestion is WordCamp, a worldwide meet-up for WordPress users and professionals. Here you can find people—designers, developers, owners and operators—who are passionate about WordPress. Not only will you learn a great deal more about WordPress, but also you will be able to meet developers face to face. Check out the WordCamp website to find the next one in your area.

If that didn’t net you a developer, your other option is a web search, and then reaching out by email or phone. Like searching for a theme, how you go about it is important. I’ll run you through a typical search for a WordPress developer:

  1. Search for “custom WordPress theme development”. Or add your city if you are looking for someone local: “custom WordPress theme development Chicago” (without the quotes)
  2. Scroll through the list and look for details and URLs that are obviously a freelancer, developer or agency. This is where you need to decide if you want to work with a single person or a team. If a single person, then you need to decide if you want to work with a designer that also codes or a developer that also designs (if you are designing the site and asking them to code it, then I would look for a developer, or a developer that also designs.) If you are looking for a team (of two or more people), then look for results that read more like an agency.
  3. Now that you have clicked on a link, let’s start looking for indicators of a good fit. First, look for signs of life. Does the footer make you wonder if they are still in business (as in it says “© 2005”)? Is there a blog with a recent post? Are there recent additions to their portfolio? A Twitter feed that is still active? Does the “Contact” page say something along the lines of ‘not accepting new work’?
  4. If it looks like they are still in business, peruse the portfolio. No portfolio of work? Hmmm, go back to the search results and find another developer/agency. If they do have a portfolio, look it over to see if they have WordPress themes listed. If so, does it say they designed and or developed them? We are looking for examples of actual work.
  5. If the person/agency claims to have designed the theme, does it look good? If the person/agency claims to have developed the theme, does it have a link to the live site? If not, do a web search for the website name you see in the example and check out the site. Your decision to contact them should not be based on one example. Look for a handful of examples.
  6. Did steps 3-5 make you feel like you would want to work with the person/agency? Keep in mind that there are thousands of WordPress theme developers in the world. If visiting their site didn’t make you feel excited to work with them, then keep looking.
  7. Repeat steps 3-5 until you have a list of about 3-5 developers/agencies you would like to work with. Take notes on each so you can remember their strengths, or possibly ask questions about anything that wasn’t clear or that raised any concerns for you.
  8. Now, take your short list and send each an email to ask if they are accepting new work and give them a short three-sentence summary of the project (see example email above.) Hopefully you found 3-5 different developers to reach out to, but know that even though there are thousands of WordPress developers out there getting in contact with one you want to work with (who also wants to work with you) may not always be easy.

Conversations with a developer/agency. When you find a developer/agency and start a conversation with them there are some important topics to cover. Keep in mind that designers, developers and agencies often choose their clients, not the other way around. You may want to work with them very much, but if they feel the project is not something that interests them, or if you come across as a potential pain in the ass, they may say no to your request.

I’ve been on the receiving end of many emails and conversations asking me to work on projects. The following are tips on how to make those initial conversations successful:

  • The first one is having the answers to the questions posed in chapter 4. You likely will not be sending them the list as you see it in chapter 4, but I would be worried if many of those questions don’t come up in the initial conversation. Being able to answer most questions right away really helps keep the conversation moving along.
  • Be honest. There is no benefit to lying about your current site, the one you want to build, or even the number of people that visit your site.
  • Don’t overshare. Stick to the conversation and try not to bog down the person with tons of information hoping to impress them that you have it. If they ask for A, B and C, just give them A, B and C. Conversely, if you feel that they aren’t asking for any information, have a conversation about that or find another developer.
  • Don’t be too rigid. There are likely things that are really important to you, such as a Twitter feed, an events calendar, or the ability to properly charge tax for people in Canada that purchase goods from your site. Whatever it is, know that every line item should be negotiable. There may be some things that the developer simply cannot do, or feels strongly against implementing. Listen, take notes and compare this to what other developers say (but don’t share what developers can or cannot do with other developers. Be professional and keep that to yourself.)
  • You’re likely not the only one in the pipeline. Keep in mind that the developer may have other clients’ projects already in development, or a vacation planned. If you go into these conversations with a set list of milestones and dates, you may get a ‘no,’ even if it’s simply on principle. Project milestones and dates should be set collaboratively after all the details have been shared. Though, if you absolutely have to launch the theme two months from now, you may want to bring that up early on. But, try and be flexible (aka, realistic.)
  • This is not a game. Every proposal I have ever received that stated I was ‘one of many developers competing for the project’ never got a reply from me. Any sane person will be reaching out to multiple developers, and of course you will be selecting the one you like best. There is no reason to mention that unless they ask.
  • Be professional and courteous. Again, this is not you pointing to a developer and saying “Hey, you there! You’ll be doing my website.” Like any other service industry, they have the right to refuse to work with you. And even more importantly, you are going to be working closely for the next few months or so on what is arguably a very important part of your brand/business. Conversely, if they aren’t professional and courteous to you, don’t work with them.
  • Spec work. Hell no. Spec work (or speculative work) is where you ask the designer/developer to do some work for free to ‘see if they are a good fit’ before hiring them for the project. It’s really a design contest of sorts, so please do not ask a designer/developer to do this. You wouldn’t ask a plumber or a lawyer to do spec work, so don’t think the design/development community should be treated any different. This practice is blight on the community and needs to stop. And for my designers/developers out there: you can help us all out by refusing to do spec work. If that rant isn’t enough, even AIGA is against spec work.

Pros of custom themes:

  • Built to order: Assuming you find an amazing theme developer, you can get exactly what you want in a Custom WordPress theme.
  • There is only one: You will have a unique design and structure that is only found on your website. Some aspects of it may look similar to others due to common website design conventions, but for the most part you will be the only one using that theme.
  • Less overhead: You also get just what you want, not a thousand extra features you will never use and which could cause problems down the road.

Cons of custom themes:

  • Cost: A custom WordPress theme can be cost prohibitive. In some cases they can cost 20 to 100 times more than a premium theme you buy on ThemeForest for $30. Beware of any custom theme only costing you $99, for it may not be what you bargained for. A good, dependable custom WordPress theme takes more than a few hours to build.
  • No updates: Like boilerplate themes, there are no periodic updates with these themes. Though, if you are having problems or need a feature added, you could go back to the developer about updating it.
  • Support may be extra: It is likely that support from the developer may expire after a few months of delivery. Future fixes, add-ons and changes typically cost extra. Since the WordPress Core is constantly evolving, it is not a viable business model for developers to offer free support for a custom theme forever. If a problem arises a year after the theme was released, you can expect to pay the developer’s hourly rate to fix it. (I don’t think of this last part so much as a con, as it is something you should factor in when talking with a developer.)

Pro Tip: I highly suggest you work out a maintenance plan with the original developer. This can be a scheduled monthly or quarterly check-in to make sure everything is working properly and fix any small bugs that crop up. Know that major, unforeseen issues—or anything you broke—could cost extra to fix. I like biweekly or monthly site maintenance, but planning a check up every time there is a major WordPress Core update is wise too.

The last word on custom themes

In the same way that not all “mechanics” can work on all types of vehicles, not all “developers” can work on WordPress themes. You are looking for an experienced “WordPress theme developer.”

Don’t be afraid to ask about a warranty or the scope of support after the theme is live. There is no industry standard on this, so be sure you are comfortable with what you are getting into. I recommend negotiating at least a 30-90 day post-launch warranty to cover problems with the original code. Again, do not expect the theme to be covered forever.

Be sure to ask about a maintenance plan with your custom theme. This is where the developer can periodically maintain the theme by logging into the Admin Panel. It might cover the WordPress installation, plugins, security issues, etc.

General Things to Look for in All Types of Themes

Compatibility

Do they claim the theme has been tested to work with the latest WordPress release? If no claim has been given, ask. Or, check the date of the last update for the theme. Visit WordPress to view when the latest WordPress release was. This isn’t a foolproof method, but themes released after the latest WordPress release should indicate that it has been tested with that release.

If the theme hasn’t been updated since 3.2 came out (July 4, 2011), don’t use it: there may be incompatibilities with the latest WordPress. Anything older than WordPress 4.4 (December 8, 2015) would be my cutoff, and at time of writing it’s approaching a year old! That’s ‘getting up there’ in web years. Do yourself a favor and stay with themes that have been updated within the past 6 months.

Browser support

Each web browser and each version of that browser treat websites differently. If—through Google Analytics—you know that an ancient browser such as Internet Explorer 8 is still being used by more than 20% of your visitors, you will want to make sure your theme supports that browser. If you don’t see browser compatibility listed on the theme details page, be sure to ask the developer what browsers are supported.

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