Picking a theme can be daunting and even overwhelming for a beginning WordPresser. This article is an attempt to clarify the process.
Where Do I Find Themes?
There are tons of options both within WordPress in the ‘Appearance -> Themes’ section and out in the wild of the web. I’d love to say there is a super quick and easy way to pick the right one, but instead I’ll say this: if you are shopping for the perfect set of clothing for an important occasion, try on everything, see if it fits. Sometimes you spot the perfect one immediately and sometimes you have to really dig around. If you get it home and then find it’s really not what you wanted, don’t be discouraged, keep looking.
Start with Content Before Choosing your Theme
YES! I know it’s tempting to jump right in and pick how your site will look. That’s ok, do some window shopping. However, unless you already have some content ready, you are essentially trying to buy clothes for an unknown person. Often what you see online is not what you get after you install. You need content, images, menus and widgets set up on your site so the theme has something to show.
Make 2-3 pages, or mockups of pages, and if you will be using posts then create at least three. Make sure to add images both in the content and as featured images. Add a video to a post if you plan on including video in your site. Make sure your menu is set up with a few links and sub-categories so you can see how it will all look.
WordPress Keeps Content and Styles Separate
One of the great things about WordPress is that it keeps the look of your site mostly separate from the content. You can rest assured that any post or page you create, or image you upload will always be there, unless you delete it. So you can try out each theme, adjust its settings, and then activate another theme without loosing your work. I did say ‘mostly’ in the first sentence, and yes there are a couple areas that get reset when you change themes.
Each theme has different widget areas that get reset when that theme is inactive. Don’t panic though because WordPress keeps track of all widgets in the ‘inactive widgets’ section of the widgets page.
You need to assign the main menu when you activate a theme. If a menu is not appearing where you think it should be, then go to ‘Appearance -> Menus’, find your menu and check the box to make it the Primary Menu.
Plugins and Functionality
Next you want to think through the core functions that you will be using for your site. Contact forms, image galleries, image sliders, portfolios, e-commerce options, and event registration are examples of additional functionality that you may need to add to your site via plugins.
Not all Themes are Created Equally
There is no guarantee that the one you pick will be bug-free and easy to use. The options and configuration settings can be entirely different for each one. Getting to know a theme is a learning process in itself. Some will have great documentation that helps you get acquainted, others you may have to figure it out for yourself. Each one will have its own ‘personality’, a reflection of the person that created it; sometimes you will get along and sometimes you won’t.
Hands-on Learning or Documentation?
If you are like me, then you will jump in and start tweaking and pushing buttons straight away. If the process is intuitive and easy, then you have a winner. If you run into a wall, then you need the instruction manual. Good themes are often well documented. You may have to search a bit to find it; visit the developer’s website or get support on WordPress.org. For example: here’s the support section for WordPress’s “Twenty Thirteen” , and here is documentation for Pinboard, a feature rich free theme. If after reading through the documentation you are still frustrated and unable to get it to do what you want, it may be best to make another choice.
Free WordPress Themes
It is super awesome that developers build and share their work with the WordPress community. Free themes are great because you can try as many as you like. They can come with abundant features and will fit for many websites.
Outside of WordPress, many great free themes are offered on developers’ websites. The freebies bring you to their site where they usually ask you to register before you can download. My site, aaronjerad.com, for example, is built with WPexplorer’s Thoughts. Sometimes the free ones are stripped down versions of a ‘premium’ theme – nice if you are interested and want to try before you buy. However, you will usually get some kind of ‘nag’ to upgrade.
Premium WordPress Themes
If you are looking for additional features, a notch up in design work, or deeper support, going premium might be your choice. Search the web for lists, reviews and beautiful designs. Just because it is for sale doesn’t make it a great! Be sure to do your research, read the available documentation, and contact customer support with questions before you buy.
Things to Look for in a Good Theme
‘Good’ is a relative term – it depends on your needs, skills and aesthetics.
Let’s look at a few key areas that will help you choose:
Responsive – Hand held devices are exploding as access points to the internet. The technology will only get better and planning your website to be accessible on mobile devices is already essential. A responsive design scales your website to fit on any device that visits it. To check for responsiveness, re-size your browser window and watch the site change. It should look good at all screen widths.
Light weight – Hand in hand with responsive design is fast and light design. The faster your site loads, the less likely you are to lose potential visitors, especially if they are paying for bandwidth on a mobile device. Some themes over-add features, the kitchen sink and some extra canned goods in case of an emergency. How to tell if your theme is ‘bloated’? Try using the Pingdom Page Speed Test, or Google Page Speed Insights test, look at the list of downloaded files and the speed score you get.
Intuitive – It’s easy to figure out and do what you want to do.
Well documented – Instructions are really really helpful and also indicate the developer’s attention to detail, communication style and ‘care’ for the theme.
Theme options – Make sure it can do what you need it to do. Backgrounds, headers, logos, colors, widget areas and different page layouts are a few of the common options. If you are comfortable with CSS or PHP code you will need fewer options. If you don’t want to ever look at code, then choosing a theme with the options you need is important. Weaver has so many options that it can be confusing. It has a learning curve, however it is highly configurable without any knowledge of code. Pinboard; has a more focused yet still robust options section. When it comes to options, if you don’t know what it is or what it does then you probably don’t need it.
Layouts – Also called Page Templates. Do you need a sidebar, full-width page, widget areas?
Widget areas – Some sites, like this one, don’t have widgets. Ask: where do I need to insert widgets – top, side, bottom, etc?
Menu – A good menu is sometimes the deciding factor. Is it easy to use? Well placed? Is it responsive?
Typography – This is an important and often overlooked option. It is essential that your site is easy and enjoyable to read. Choosing the right fonts, sizes, spacing and line lengths create good readability.
Appearance – Last but not least… I started with content and am ending with general appearance for a reason. A good website is so much more than what it looks like… but it still needs to look good. After all, the visual impact of a site is the first point of interaction. The appearance should say ‘HELLO!’, introduce your content and then support the content without interfering.
Ready, Set, … Install!
Ok, you’ve got some content created and a menu set up and you are ready to get started. Pick your favorite one and activate it, spend 10-15 minutes getting to know the theme, look at its options, try it on and take it for a spin. Expect to test a few different ones and spend some time; after all it took someone countless hours building the theme. If you get stuck, seek help, read the documentation or keep looking.