Your choice of WordPress Theme determines many important aspects of your site. Choosing the right theme can be tricky for newcomers to WordPress, since most people will be attracted by eye-candy alone. A good theme is one that not only looks good, but is also lean and lightweight, easy to customize, flexible, actively developed and well supported.
Here at SitePoint, we regularly cover topics related to themes and theme development, here’s a quick recap of some of the recent theme related articles:
- Getting Started with Underscores
- 10 of the Best WooCommerce Themes
- Divi: The Drag and Drop WordPress Theme
- 4 of the Most Popular WordPress Theme Frameworks
- How to Spot a Rogue or Subpar WordPress Theme
As you can see, it’s a big topic ranging from page-builder style products, through to custom development options. Even with an abundance of information online, a question I get asked quite often is what is the best WordPress theme? There isn’t really such a thing as ‘the best’ theme, it’s what is the best theme for you. This includes your experience, your preferences and the type of website you’re building.
In this article, I’m going to cover a few areas I’d recommend looking into when you are selecting a theme. These are my opinions formed after testing a lot of themes and working with those that clients have already purchased.
I’m also intentionally not going to mention any vendors, frameworks or places to buy themes – you’ll be able to apply the advice here anywhere, to any theme. I’m also going to assume that you’re getting your theme from a trusted source.
What Makes a Good WordPress Theme?
Since themes are all about design and UX, it’s normal for us to judge a theme based purely on how it looks and feels, but there is much more you should look into to make an informed decision.
Great documentation is the sign of a quality product. This is probably the number one thing I first look for. I’m not suggesting that you can’t find quality themes that are lacking in documentation, but I definitely look favourably on themes that are well documented.
Detailed documentation will help you configure and customize your theme, as well as explain how the theme can be modified – useful if you’re a developer or if you ever need the help of one.
You should expect that your theme meets some basic requirements such as being SEO friendly and mobile responsive. I’m still amazed to see many themes that aren’t either.
You should also expect a nice range of widget areas, layouts and templates. It’s worth finding out whether a theme has widgetized areas outside of a primary sidebar for example, that gives you the ability to control elements of your theme. You should also check if a theme offers you multiple layouts (e.g full width, sidebar and content, blog, landing page), this will provide you with options that enable you to very easily customise different areas of your site.
The Theme Customizer has seen some improvements in WordPress 4.0. Many themes will give you the ability to easily manipulate key elements such as logo/background image, colors and fonts. You can usually assess these options in your theme settings or in the theme customizer view (under Appearance > Customize).
It is important not to confuse standard features with excessive features, which I cover in the next point.
Lean and Lightweight
This is another very important factor for most projects. Generally, a theme that is well written will not only be faster, but it will most likely be easier to understand and modify if needed.
Complexity is always our enemy, so avoid complex themes with a lot of dependencies. It’s not uncommon to find themes that include everything and the kitchen sink, with functionality much better offered in the form of plugins. The same applies to custom post types, which can make switching more cumbersome.
I personally try to avoid themes with too many bells and whistles. Perhaps this is a personal preference based on my own bad experiences, but these are usually the first sites to break when updated.
We’ve all been there. You’re stuck with something not working so you log a ticket and wait for a reply with your fingers crossed. While most vendors will boast that they have world-class support, this can often be far from the reality. The best way to learn about the quality of support is to check various community channels such as Twitter or wherever your local WordPress developers congregate.
If you’re committing to a theme for the long haul, you want to make sure that your theme will continue to be developed to ensure compatibility for future versions of WordPress and that all bugs and possible security issues are fixed in a timely manner.
Reviews and Feedback
Collective intelligence is a great thing. Of course it can be gamed, but it’s worth checking. Always look for themes and/or vendors that have positive feedback and favourable reviews. This is another good reason to build your network of experienced developers, most will gladly tell you which themes they like and those to avoid.
Useful Tools and Resources
WP Test (wptest.io)
I first mentioned WP Test (wptest.io) in a previous article, but it’s worth mentioning again, especially in any article talking about WordPress themes. Developed by Michael Novotny, WP Test describes itself as “A fantastically exhaustive set of test data to measure the integrity of your plugins and themes”. It’s essentially an import file for WordPress designed to push a theme to the limits. The best way to explain what it does is to show you some examples.
These tests are designed to make sure that your theme will handle real content that the developer might not have thought about.
The WP Test file is around 30MB and you’ll need the WordPress Importer plugin installed, however it can also be installed via WP-CLI. You can find out more about WP Test here.
The WordPress Theme Development Standards
There are documented coding standards published on WordPress.org, adhering to these standards helps improve the overall quality of a theme. Unfortunately these guidelines are not always followed. We can test the code quality of our theme in a few ways, but the easiest is by using the Theme Check plugin which I’ll cover below.
The Theme Check plugin checks for various quality points in the code of your theme. You’ll see in the example below that the default Twenty Fourteen theme passes all tests.
Here’s an example of a theme with some recommendations:
Theme Check needs WordPress debugging to be enabled, you can do this by adding
define('WP_DEBUG', true); to your wp-config.php file. You can find out more information by visiting the Theme Check plugin page.
Theme Authenticity Checker (TAC)
Theme Authenticity Checker is a plugin that checks for malicious or unwanted code. It’s always worth running this if you’re dealing with a theme from an unknown or untrusted source. Charles Costa offers advice on spotting bad themes in his article titled ‘How to Spot a Rogue or Subpar Theme’, which I recommend reading. You can find out more information by visiting the Theme Authenticity Checker plugin page.
What’s Your Best WordPress Theme?
Design is often used as the main criteria for judging the quality of a theme. Of course this is important, but as the old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” goes, this also applies to themes. Do your homework and dig deeper and make your own decision based on more than just how it looks on the demo site.
As I mentioned in the start of this article, these are just my opinions. I’m very interested in what other WordPress users and developers are using. Please feel free to share your own recommended themes, themes to avoid and general advice when selecting a theme in the comment section below.
Chris isn't afraid to admit it: he's a geek from way back, having worked in IT for more than 20 years. He co-founded a digital agency called Clickify, working with a great team of developers and marketers, and is also the WordPress Editor for SitePoint. Chris is passionate about keeping up-to-date with the latest web technologies and can be found at many of the tech events in Melbourne, Australia. For more details, check out his personal site at chrisburgess.com.au.