Choosing a WordPress Theme

How to choose a good WordPress theme for your business or professional website

Article courtesy of Marc Beneteau, Founder at  WP Academy (http://WPAcademy.com).

This is your most important initial decision after you have first installed WordPress. Here is why:

  • Your site’s appearance and initial impression is determined largely by two things: your theme, and the graphic density of your site (number and quality of graphics, such as your header). A good theme will make the difference between a professional-looking site and one that isn’t. So start with a good theme and then add professional (or semi-professional) graphics – see below.
  • You should choose your theme fairly soon after you begin your site, since it has an impact on how you create your content (i.e. two or three-column layouts, screen width, etc). In WordPress, content is mostly separate from presentation, so you can always change your theme later. However, if you do this, you will lose most of the work that you have put into styling and customizing your theme (you will need to start fresh making stylistic adjustment to the new theme).
  • Themes are customizable to differing degrees. Modifying the PHP theme files directly is possible in all themes, but you want to avoid this if you can (unless you want to learn PHP programming). You are better off choosing a theme that already has the functionality and look that you want. You are also typically better off choosing a Theme framework over a regular theme. A theme framework allows you to customize many directly through the theme options page. A good theme framework will allow you to select the number of sidebars, width of sidebars, all your fonts and colors, and much more through the WordPress dashboard. This may save you hours (or days) of wandering through stylesheets (CSS files) and PHP.

Free theme or commercial theme?

As a professional WordPress educator, I used to work a lot with free themes and recommend them to my clients (particularly the very powerful free Atahualpa theme framework). However, recently I have been working almost exclusively with commercial themes for many reasons:

  • Very few free themes are actually Theme Frameworks. What this means is that if you want to add another sidebar or even change basic things such as the width of the site, you may need to hire a programmer. On the other hand, most recommended commercial themes below are already fully-developed theme frameworks.
  • It’s difficult (or impossible) to find a free theme that both looks good out-of-the-box, and provides a high degree of customizability (ie a theme that operates more as a theme framework than a theme). Many commercial theme families, however, do both really well.
  • Most commercial themes cost in the range of $60-$80. It’s usually not worth saving $80 in order to spend an extra dozen hours styling your site (and then possibly failing to get the look-and-feel you want anyway and having to start again).
  • All commercial themes provide some degree of support, usually through a forum. Free themes, on the other hand, may not be supported at all (Exception: free Atahualpa theme support is excellent)

Best (recommended) commercial themes

  • StudioPress: one of the best choices overall. Very rich theme family with a lot of customization power.
  • Woothemes: another excellent, very diverse and powerful theme family
  • Thesis: A very solid, highly customizable theme, and one of the most popular themes on the web. Thesis themed sites generally look alike unless you do some serious customization, however the flexibility and performance makes up for that (and they are designed to be easily customized in a number of ways)
  • If you can’t find anything you like from the above, try the following:
  • Theme Forest: a large commercial theme collection. Many are quite attractive but note that you will be getting a theme, not a theme framework.
  • iThemes (Builder or Flexx especially)

Last, consider:

Artisteer ($50).  This is Windows software that allows you to design the layout locally and provides a lot of options. When you are done, export the theme files and upload to your site with FTP. It creates visually rich sites, although a bit on the simple side. Also works for Joomla and Drupal content management systems.

Best free themes

If you are just starting out you can check some of the attractive free themes available for download from the WordPress.org theme directory. All of the themes below can be installed to your site directly in a few clicks from WordPress.org (see how below).

Start with WordPress’ most popular (free) themes – you may find a bull’s eye theme there, and if not, you might get some ideas. Remember that there are disadvantages to using a regular theme vs. a theme framework, even if that theme is great from a visual point of view.

One of the best free theme frameworks is Weaver. It looks pretty good and has a lot of customizability.

Consider Atahualpa as probably the most powerful free theme framework. It rivals commercial products in its sophistication. However, it looks a bit dull out-of-the-box (be prepared to tweak it)

If you are looking for a theme for a specific business type, try searching the WordPress.org free themes directory site or else Googling it directly (i.e. “WordPress theme for therapist”).

Other suggestions: White House, Hybrid, Thematic, Revolution and Lysa. These are all clean, uncluttered themes, suitable for any type of professional site.

Installing and activating your theme

If you are using a free theme, install and activate it directly through your dashboard: Appearance > Add New Theme, search for it by name, then install and activate it.

If you purchase a commercial theme, you will need to upload it to your web site and activate it.  The easiest way to do this is via the Theme > Add New Theme command (in your WordPress dashboard). Select the “Upload” tab, find and upload the theme zip file provided by your theme vendor.

The second way is to unzip the theme files and upload them via FTP.  You will need FTP client software for this (e.g. FileZilla), and you will need to know your hosting account username and password.  See this article for additional instructions.

How to customize (style) a theme

The first thing you will usually do is add a company banner (site header) and logo. See below for making a header using the free image editing software Paint.net (available only on Windows).

You will usually need to upload your banner image to your website using FTP, and place it inside the correct directory of your server. Some themes (such as the recommended Weaver theme) have a dashboard interface for adding a header (you won’t need FTP)

Once your theme is installed, check out your customizable theme options (in WordPress Admin > Appearance > Theme Options).  If you are using a theme framework, you will be able to set the width of your site, the presence of sidebars, and many other options.

The best themes and theme frameworks also give you control of the styling of every element of your site, such as background color, font, margins, etc. You need to know a little CSS to do this, but this is quite simple and if in doubt you can Google “CSS background color” for the precise syntax, or to go to W3Schools CSS tutorial.

If your theme options page doesn’t expose all the CSS styles, you can still modify the CSS file directly. This is a bit technical, and not recommended for regular users. If you want to try it, however, you can access your site’s CSS file in Appearance > Edit and then edit the CSS file from there.

If you are modifying your site’s CSS, you might want to take a look at Firebug, a Firefox add-on that lets you examine each element of another site you like, view the underlying CSS code, and modify the CSS code on the fly and see the results.  You can use it, essentially, to copy the styling of any site on the internet (and it’s legal!).

Note: CSS styling commands need the hex color code, something like #AA0944 – this is hexadecimal notation, two hex digits each for the color values: Red, Green, and Blue (00 to FF). You can find / detect color settings on another website using the Firefox Colorzilla add-on.