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What is a WordPress theme and How do You Choose One?

40 Days of Blogging - Day 8

If you’re looking to start a website, hire a web designer and/or learn about web design, then this post is for you.

Today I’m going to talk about WordPress and WordPress themes. But first, let’s make sure we all know what WordPress even is.

Back in the day, websites were (and still are sometimes) built in a certain software (i.e. Dreamweaver) on someone’s (the designer’s or developer’s) computer. If you needed to make a change to your website, you’d have to go back to that same person because they had the software on his/her computer and could access the backend of your website. Another example is iWeb from Apple. I created my yoga/fitness website in iWeb, and if I wanted to make any changes to it, I would have to go into iWeb on MY computer (and ONLY my computer). iWeb doesn’t actually exist anymore, and I’ve been slowly and gradually re-building the site in WordPress. It’ll get done eventually. It has to!

Today, most people use a Content Management System (CMS) to design, build and update websites. Examples include Squarespace, Drupal, Joomla, and of course, WordPress. The beauty of a Content Management System is its accessibility. For website Content Management Systems like WordPress, you can access your site anywhere with a username and password. Thank goodness!

Since my specialty is WordPress (and it’s the only CMS I use), that’s what the focus of this post will be about. But even more importantly, I’m going to talk about WordPress themes.

When you “install WordPress onto your domain/URL”, it comes with a pre-installed, basic, free theme. This means that as soon as you install WordPress, it already has a “look” to it (vs. a blank white screen). That “look” is the result of a bunch of code that’s telling the screen how and where to display fonts (bold, big, italic, small, serif, sans-serif), colors (black, red), images (aligned right, aligned left), etc. All you have to do is add text and images, specify colors, etc., and your site is pretty much done (well, kinda).

You must have a theme installed on your WordPress site or else it won’t work. The theme can be free, premium, or custom.

When I first got started learning about web design, I was royally confused! I did not understand what a theme was, and I certainly didn’t know which theme to use. I would buy a theme, attempt to figure out what the heck I was doing, then ask the company for a refund the moment I got frustrated (which was VERY early in the process). I think I did this at least five times! Then, I decided I wanted to understand more about web design, and I ended up falling in love so much that it is now what I do for a living.

To help you understand, I’m going share with you the best explanation of what a theme is that I found. StudioPress (the maker of hundreds of themes that are powered by the Genesis Framework) explains it like this:

“WordPress acts as the engine of your car.

Genesis (the framework) is the frame and body of the car, and is the basic design, security, and SEO foundation of your website. In handling all the core code, Genesis also helps to “future-proof” your site, so all your customizations won’t disappear when it comes time for your one-click software upgrades.

Lastly, a child theme is the pure design element that rests on top of your framework — the cherry red paint job on that car. Or blue. Or black. Pink. Green. You get the idea, whatever works for you…”

I actually don’t use Genesis/StudioPress (I did once, and I’ll talk about that shortly), but I LOVE their explanation.

So, back to themes.

I want to give you some numbers that will likely surprise you and could make you want to either never (have to) design your own website or it might intrigue you enough to start theme-shopping.

WARNING: If you have trouble making decisions or are a shopaholic, you may want to steer clear of theme-searching/shopping!

Did you know that there are literally THOUSANDS of WordPress themes out there? And within the thousands, there are free and premium themes. Within free and premium themes, the amount of choices is so overwhelming that your head will be spinning in no time.

Just on the WordPress.org site, there are a TON of free themes. I couldn’t find an overall number, but I did some quick filtering, and here’s what I found:

  • When I searched for themes with two columns, there were 1,288 themes available.
  • When I searched for themes that allowed for a custom background, there were 1,114 themes available.
  • When I searched for themes that had orange in them, there were 229 themes available.

Obviously, there’s some overlap in these numbers, but it’s still a lot…and that’s only from one site. And those are just the freebies!

For fee-based themes, there are so many options out there that it’s nearly impossible to decide. The Themeforest website has “18,270 Website Templates and Themes.” Most of the other fee-based theme sites out there don’t show their total numbers, but let’s just say it’s too many to count. This site shows some numbers from various sources, but it is from two years ago.

I’m about to tell you my personal opinion on WordPress themes and talk about the only one I use, but before I get to that, I want to share just a few more links and facts with you.

The following sites offer some of the most popular premium WordPress themes on the market. The sheer number of them is overwhelming (and a little insane!). Just take a gander if you dare:
Divi by Elegant Themes
Canvas by Woo Themes

The following sites offer tidbits of info to help you choose a theme:
The Best Premium Themes for 2014

This site shares what you should look for when choosing a WordPress premium theme

Finally, I just wanted to throw out a crazy number just for kicks and giggles. If you’re not seriously confused (or overwhelmed) on the whole theme topic just yet, how about this…

The amazing thing about WordPress is that you can add plugins to your Website that extend and expand the functionality of WordPress.

Ready for it?

Every Day Brings New ChoicesThere are currently 36,700 WordPress plugins at your fingertips, and that’s just within the WordPress.org website. There are also thousands of fee-based plugins out there that aren’t even listed in the WordPress.org plugin directory. And by the way, those 36,700 plugins have been downloaded a total of 872,761,827 times as of today! HOLY SMOKES!!

So, after making multiple purchases and then getting refunds due to frustration and being clueless + being extremely overwhelmed by the number of options available, how in the world do I decide what theme to use on the sites I create for myself and my clients?

Luckily for me, it’s (now) simple! I stopped trying to learn my way around different themes and focused on ONE. Sure, it helped that the web design course I took only focused on one, but that was how they were able to create such a great course. By focusing on one theme and how to use it and then teaching the basics of HTML and CSS, I was able to finally make a decision, feel comfortable with WordPress and themes, and confidently offer a 100% customizable product/service to my clients.

Enter Thesis:

The fully customizable WordPress Framework (they don’t really use the term theme over at Thesis) that starts with a blank canvas. The blank canvas is actually their Classic Responsive Skin (they don’t really use the term child theme either). They have some other Skins that aren’t a blank canvas and resemble more of a typical child theme with design elements already place. But, I much prefer the blank canvas as a starting point.

The challenge I had with StudioPress and Genesis is that it came with so much code already in there, that it took forever to try to figure out what something was and where it was in order to tweak it even in the most minor way. I realized that I work better from a blank slate where I don’t have to work through a bunch of code just to get something to be red or 500px wide! Thesis has its core code in a place where you really don’t (need to) access it. So, you don’t have to go searching for the exact place where you need to change something. You just write your own CSS (the code the makes your website look pretty…and how you want it to look), and that CSS overrides the CSS the Thesis developers put in there.

I could go on and on about Thesis and why I use it and only it, but I’ll save that for another day. In a nutshell – it works for me; I can customize it to match the website dreams of my clients; and the support is fantastic!

Here’s the bottom line when it comes to themes:

Unless you (1) are able to make decisions very easily (meaning, you can sort through the thousands of themes out there and pick one that looks like what you’d want your site to look like…and you don’t mind that there may be others out there whose site looks almost exactly the same); (2) know how to code; and/or (3) plan to and have time to take a web design course…then it’s really best to hire a professional to do the job.

You’ll save yourself a lot of time, frustration, anxiety, gray-hair-growing and/or hair-losing, and more! Plus, if you hire a designer who uses a theme/framework like Thesis, you can pretty much guarantee that your site will not look like hundreds of others (unless, of course, you like a certain theme and ask your designer to make your site look like that).

I chose to not only learn the skills, but I loved learning about WordPress, themes/skins, coding, etc. so much that I made a career out of it. Now, if that’s your passion, then heck yeah – let that bad boy loose! But, if you are in the business to do your current job or sell your current products or services, then it’s truly best to hire someone to design and develop your website. Trust me – it is NOT worth the lack of sleep, extra money you’ll end up spending from probably having to start over and hire someone later, etc.!

*Please note that some links in this post are affiliate links. I only associate with and recommend products that I trust and would personally use. If you do click on one of them, please know how much I appreciate it.

Do you have any questions about WordPress, themes, Thesis or anything else mentioned in this post?
Post your questions below and I’ll happily answer them!

Until tomorrow,

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