3 common questions about WordPress themes

As a programming instructor that covers WordPress, I often get asked about themes by students. There are all kinds of questions, but here are three I want to answer.

1. Can you recommend a good theme?

Not really.

That’s like asking if I can recommend a good trip to take. What trip you take totally depends on factors such as your interests, stage in life, time of the year, etc… Likewise what theme to use depends on your client, your projects, your level of skill with WordPress, and the like.

That being said, there are number of factors that can help you weed out generally good themes from bad ones.

These include:

  • Good reviews on the WP page
  • Support
  • Good search results on Google for the theme
  • Word of mouth (i.e. a colleague has used that particular theme and vouches for it)
  • A reputable author or company
  • Good documentation

There is also the question of what route to take as a WordPress developer. I’ll cover this in another article but you have to decide whether you prefer a minimalist platform which you custom code and build on top of, or a theme that ships with all kinds of automated features out of the box.

Being a developer, programmer, and an all around open source guy, I tend to prefer the former method, so if I really have to break it down to what constitutes a good theme, I’d vote for the official ones that WordPress authors every year. They always tend to be relevant, up-to-date, have the best documentation, and give you quite a minimal platform to start with.

2. What’s a child theme, and why use it?

In WordPress, there are two types of themes: parent themes (or just “themes”) and child themes.

Parent themes are built from complete scratch, and are generally harder to code–especially when building the navigation and the page containing all posts. Even developers that build parent themes often start with a pre-coded base theme like “Underscores”, to at least avoid some of the more complex PHP tasks like navigation and loops.

Child themes piggy back off of an already existing parent theme. They’re essentially just a divergence or further customization off of what the parent theme already offers. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that child themes are not robust though. Assuming your parent theme is more of a minimalist, basic one, you can morph a child theme into anything from a single CSS property change, all the way to a completely reshuffled layout that’s unrecognizable from its parent.

The reason to use a child theme is two fold:

  1. It’s good for business. As opposed to building a parent theme on every project, with a child theme, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. You let other developers do that heavy lifting, and you piggy back off of it.
  2. Plug and play.  As opposed to hacking the parent theme directly, it’s better to declare a new child theme and make all your changes there. That way, you can always revert back to the original look of the theme by just unplugging your child theme. Since you also haven’t actually hacked the parent theme’s base code, you don’t have to worry about your site breaking in the event that the parent theme is automatically updated.

3. Should I use a free theme or paid theme?

Again, totally depends.

Free themes are…well…free of course, and usually more open source in philosophy, which is great, but keep in mind that that also often carries with it all the potential pitfalls of free and/or open source products. You know, things like a half-baked execution in quality, little or non-existent support, lack of clear leadership on the direction of the product, etc… This is not true of all free and/or open source products, but nevertheless, the potential is there.

Premium themes cost money (which can kind of suck) but sometimes the small investment is completely worth it. I’ve found that on the whole, premium themes tend to be more polished if they’re from a reputable enough company like Woothemes. You can also usually ask pre-sales questions to the company to make sure the theme can handle what you need (as you can sometimes do with the author of a free theme). On the downside though, I’ve found that some premium themes have bad quality (or support service) despite the fact that I’ve paid for them. I’ve also found that recently some premium themes are getting so complex in their coding that they are very high maintenance once deployed or can be very heavy, and consequently, slow. (Sometimes almost heavier than WordPress itself!) Lately, some also tend to be too automated for my taste, aimed more for the layperson than the developer. It’s kind of extra bulk that I don’t need, because I have HTML5, CSS3, and Bootstrap on my side.

Get out there and try some themes

Those are 3 of many questions about themes I receive. There is really no “one size fits all” when it comes to WordPress themes. Ultimately it comes down to your philosophy as a developer, what you’ve experimented and had success with in the past, and above all, the needs of each individual project.

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