4 of the Most Popular WordPress Theme Frameworks

Jacco Blankenspoor
Tweet

WordPress frameworks are becoming increasingly popular to build themes with. They allow for rapid development based on best practices, without the need to reinvent the wheel each time you design a new theme.

What are WordPress Theme Frameworks?

A WordPress theme framework allows you to build WordPress themes the same way Volkswagen builds its cars. They use only a handful of platforms, on which they can build dozens of different models for their four major brands. Each car model has a common set of components like engine, power train or suspension. But when it comes to designing the interior and exterior, each brand gives its own flavor to make it unique.

For example, if you replace ‘engines’ with theme options, ‘power train’ with documentation and ‘suspension’ with SEO, you get the idea of these shared components. Frameworks lay the foundations for a theme, so you can focus on designing rather than programming. With some frameworks, 80% of your work has already been done before you begin, so you only have to worry about using the remaining 20% to make your theme unique.

Frameworks do have one major drawback, which is also seen with automobile platforms. They limit flexibility and creativity and the themes based on frameworks have the tendency to all look the same. Also, as a developer, it may take some time before fully understanding the framework.

If you put in enough time you will see that it is possible to make your theme stand out from the crowd. Just like we all want a unique design, most of us would rather drive an Audi A3 than a Volkswagen Golf. If you learn your chosen framework, at least you can always be assured that your foundation is properly built.

In this article I will show you some of the current popular WordPress theme frameworks. Three of them are paid and one of them is free, and each has its own distinctive qualities. I will also have a look at their support options and show you what some of the completed themes looks like.

1. Genesis

Genesis Demo

Genesis demo 1
Genesis demo 2
Genesis demo 3

Price: $59.95
Support: Unlimited support included + active forums

Genesis is one of the most popular WordPress theme frameworks at the moment. It is developed by the team at Copyblogger Media, a professional marketing company who are highly regarded content marketers as well as offering a range of WordPress-related services. They’ve put their own experiences into this framework, which translates into some interesting features like:

  • Detailed SEO options, where you specify the most detailed settings, with support for Schema.org
  • Responsive design, based on HTML5
  • Tons of (very pretty) pre-made child themes (for an additional payment) which you can base your own theme on
  • Developer friendly with lots of documentation to lower the learning curve
  • Unlimited support and updates

Genesis is definitely worth a try based on its pricing and support alone. It has many popular sites running on it, including the famous Problogger.net. The Genesis developer community is also very active, so it’s a great framework to start with if you are new to developing themes.

2. Thesis

Thesis Demo

Thesis demo 1
Thesis demo 2 (full customization + motivation)
Thesis demo 3

Price: $197 for the recommended version, Professional.
Support: Unlimited support (Professional plan and up) + active community

Thesis is a advanced WordPress theme framework, offering more control over design and functions. But with the increased flexibility comes a higher learning curve if you want to write your own code. Luckily they also offer a drag-and-drop layout tool with a visual template editor, so non-developers can create custom designs without the need for leaving the dashboard.

The main Thesis features are:

  • Boxes, which are kind of like template plugins which you can use to add a ton of integrations for newsletters, Facebook Like boxes etc.
  • Focus on typography, giving you almost unlimited control over your fonts
  • Easy integration of search engine goodies like Authorship and Google Webmaster Tools
  • Ability to really dive into the code with the Thesis API

Thesis is the perfect framework for the more advanced theme developer. Its pricing is quite high compared to the other frameworks, especially if you want a few base skins to work with (as these are not included in the cheaper $87 Basic license). The Professional license comes with unlimited support and updates as well as a few extra Boxes and skins. Don’t expect to skip ahead by using one of these base skins though, since in my opinion these are quite ugly to be honest.

3. WooFramework + Canvas Theme

WooFramework Canvas

Canvas demo 1
Canvas demo 2
Canvas demo 3 (Canvas + WooCommerce)

Price: $97
Support: 1 year of support and updates + community support

WooThemes is one of the leading theme shops in the WordPress world. They build all of their themes on their own framework, called ‘WooFramework’. The framework can’t be bought on its own, so they developed a base theme called Canvas. This will serve as the foundation of your own theme, with Canvas being quite a decent theme already.
WooFramework and Canvas combined offer the following important features:

  • WooCommerce ready
  • Portfolio functionality with advanced display options
  • One-click updates from within the dashboard
  • Very solid foundation, being the framework WooThemes builds its own themes on (of which they sell many thousands a year)

The Canvas theme is loved by many developers around the world. It is already attractive itself, which makes it easier to start with. It already includes some popular features like portfolio functionality and custom shortcodes. The only downside is that you only pay for one year of support and updates, while with the other paid frameworks this is unlimited.

4. Gantry

Gantry Demo

Gantry demo 1
Gantry demo 2
Gantry demo 3

Price: Free
Support: 1 year of paid support for $99 a year + 2 active Google Groups

Gantry is a framework by another popular theme shop, RocketTheme. They offer some beautiful themes themselves, and made their framework available under the GPL license. They have documented Gantry very well, and actively improve it based on their experiences and community input. It can easily compete with the other frameworks. Some of its most important features are:

  • Responsive design based on Twitter Bootstrap
  • Extensive customization options, like blank widgets to allow for better positioning
  • Tons of included widgets and built-in fields
  • Support for LESS CSS and the popular 960-grid system

Gantry is not the easiest of frameworks to work with, but it does allow for extreme customization. Just look at the demos above, all of the themes are very different yet built on the same platform. As previously mentioned, the documentation is great and the Gantry Google Groups are populated with many developers who can help you in your quest to learn more.

Paid support is available, but only if you buy a commercial license at RocketTheme itself. At $99 a year it’s not cheap, but there is an option to buy a shorter support period for a smaller amount. If you’re still not sure whether you want to work on a framework at all, Gantry may be a good fit to test the waters.

Other Theme Frameworks

The WordPress Codex has a long list of theme frameworks not mentioned in this article, I’ve only covered the more popular frameworks I’ve seen developers and designers using.

If you’re interested in even more theme frameworks, I’d highly recommend you take a look at the WordPress Codex page on Theme Frameworks. The WordPress Codex is also the definitive place to learn about theme development best practice.

WordPress Codex Theme Frameworks

SitePoint also covered WordPress theme frameworks back in 2011, it’s interesting to see how things have evolved since then!

Conclusion

There are many more frameworks available than just these four, although these are among the most popular. There are many competing theme framework projects, many of which look very interesting. In the end it is all a matter of keeping up with current trends, best practices and listening to your audience. Some frameworks suit designers more than developers. Some are more lightweight than others, and some have more support and community options. In the end the best framework for you is the one that best fits your needs and workflow.

Please comment below and tell me what your favorite framework is. Feel free to suggest different frameworks and share your experiences.

Free book: Jump Start HTML5 Basics

Grab a free copy of one our latest ebooks! Packed with hints and tips on HTML5's most powerful new features.

  • Kate Perry

    Google is paying 80$ per>>CLICK NEXT TAB FOR MORE INFO AND
    HELP

  • http://espreson.net/ espreson

    Highly priced framework is not welcoming.! While WordPress is free.

    • PatPatWorks Design

      Well let#s be honest. I am not saying you should use a framework, but… if you value your time nothing is ever free. So before you dismiss, work out how much it will cost you to get to where you want to go. Of course if you are happy with 2014, then yeah, its free :-)

    • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

      Hi, the Gantry framework itself is free (you only pay for support).

    • http://ChiefAlchemist.com/ Mark Simchock

      That’s just silly. If you pay X for something and in the end it save you ten times X then only a fool would say “…but it’s not free.” I’d like to suggest you stop thinking like a programmer and try thinking like a developer and/or a business owner.

      To my point, anyone who has gotten “lost” in the WP Codex looking for an answer knows that WordPress is not “free” – unless of course you consider your own time free. Pardon me but…#Duh :)

  • Artyom4D

    How about Divi framework? Strange that he did not get in the review.

    • http://chrisburgess.com.au/ Chris Burgess

      Divi is very nice and raising the bar, something we plan on covering in the future.

  • Cherif BOUCHELAGHEM

    I think starter theme like underscore is just enough !

    • http://chrisburgess.com.au/ Chris Burgess

      We’ve got something on _s coming in the next few days ;)

      • Cherif BOUCHELAGHEM

        Thank you Chris :)

  • matt

    Can this article be any worse? Shareware frameworks for free CMS? Seriously? Also the fact that it’s just a framework. A FRAMEWORK.

    • http://ChiefAlchemist.com/ Mark Simchock

      Actually, I think what you’re (mostly) paying for is the support. If you’ve even fallen into a WP Codex time-suck you’d probably agree $100 or maybe even $1000 a year to find / get solutions in a timely fashion is priceless.

      p.s. It would have been nice (read: VERY helpful) if the article explored both support and documentation. It’s 2015 (almost) so it’s time these things be consider part of “the product”. That is, for example, the greatest product in the world doesn’t mean squat if the doc are bad and the support non-existent.

      • http://chrisburgess.com.au/ Chris Burgess

        The same applies to plugins, services etc. — and not just WordPress for that matter. I think that anything that saves time is worth a few bucks. I agree that exploring support and documentation would be a good topic.

        • http://ChiefAlchemist.com/ Mark Simchock

          Yup. Agreed. *Nothing* is free. The people who get hung up on WP’s (or other similar OSS CMS) price have never been in a Codex time-suck hole.

          While it’s been a while since I’ve used it, I’ve always been fond (and very appreciative) of ExpressionEngine. The price isn’t free but the ROI on average always felt like it outdid WP, etc.

      • http://www.buildyourownwebstore.com/ Jacco Blankenspoor

        Hi Mark, for this roundup article I touched the documentation and support briefly. One of the main reasons these frameworks are actually on this list is because the offer the full package (product, support and documentation). Gantry does very well on documentation, and is a great framework all in all.

    • http://onsman.com/ ronsman

      I think you’re also vastly under-estimating what these frameworks provide. I’ve used Genesis and Thesis and am currently using Canvas on four client projects. In each case, the default templates are complete, good-looking, well-functoning websites. As Jacco says, 80% of the work is done. Helps me keep prices low, and produces happy clients.

  • http://ChiefAlchemist.com/ Mark Simchock

    btw, if you ever decide to do a picee on WP development frameworks (i.e., not just themes) , WP ezClasses is a newer framework that’s probably worth looking at. It should be easy to find on GitHub. It’s a work in the progress but it’s OOP and over all a fairly ambitious effort.

    Full disclosure: I contribute to the organization / project.

    • http://chrisburgess.com.au/ Chris Burgess

      Thanks Mark, will definitely take a look at this :)

      • http://ChiefAlchemist.com/ Mark Simchock

        Chris – Presuming you find the Org on Github**, the Getting Started repo is on my TODO list. It’s blank atm :( Just follow that repo for now please. I hope to have a work-in-progress Getting Started up and running in the next week or so.

        ** I don’t want to post the direct link and come off as being spam-y, etc.

        • http://chrisburgess.com.au/ Chris Burgess

          Will do Mark!

  • Craig Paterson

    Surprised that Headway isn’t mentioned either.

  • Donald Allen

    Underscores all the way.

    • http://ChiefAlchemist.com/ Mark Simchock

      Yes. But not really a framework per se tho’, eh?

  • http://chrisburgess.com.au/ Chris Burgess

    Good point Andrew. Frameworks are definitely not for everyone, there are plenty of pros and cons.

  • James Giroux

    you forgot to mention PageLines. :-)

  • erwanlescop

    How can you seriously forget here PageLines DMS or Headway? Seriously :)?

  • http://www.brettwidmann.com Brett Widmann

    I’ve picked up a few of the extension plugins from the PootlePress crew and am very impressed with their work.

  • http://chrisburgess.com.au/ Chris Burgess

    Thanks Mark, will check it out :)

  • rezzafr33

    For me roots starter theme is more than enough

  • Fiftyseven

    What about YooThemes? They rock! Responsive, excellent support, good price.

    I’ve personally had some dreadful experiences with Gantry.

  • YNWA

    Genesis is all I build in anymore. Cheap, no yearly payments, and of course the framework is excellent. Very lightweight, great SEO and security features built in, and you can do pretty much anything with it design-wise.

    Obviously making a custom theme is not going to be drag and drop, so it is either custom or using their templates. Not a ton of design flexibility for the beginning WordPress user.

  • http://www.wpfirm.com/ WP Firm

    I have tried both in Joomla and WordPress it’s awesome framework. And above all it’s completely free and well documented. I am going to try genes

  • http://www.itechaleart.com/ itechaleart

    Good collection of wordpress theme frameworks. :)
    thumps up for post.

  • https://www.wordprax.com/ Amy Brown

    You can add one more WordPress theme framework in your list that is WooFramework + Canvas Theme. WooFramework and Canvas combined offer the following important features:

    1. WooCommerce ready
    2. Portfolio functionality with advanced display options
    3. One-click updates from within the dashboard
    4. Very solid foundation, being the framework WooThemes builds its own themes on