I grew up wearing uniforms to school. Supposedly parents loved them, but every kid I knew detested the itchy plaid shorts, knee-high socks, and oxford shirts. Sure, I could choose which color combination to wear (do I feel like white oxford / navy khakis or is it a blue polo / plaid skirt kind of day?), but overall our individual flair was relegated to things like hair accessories and backpacks.
Once or twice a semester we’d get to pay for the privilege of wearing normal clothes (the money collected for some student-council activity). My sister and I cherished these days where, for $1, we could express our individuality through a 100% self-selected outfit. The closet was our oyster.
WordPress first introduced the theming system in version 1.5 (2005) and, for the first time, users could pick their own outfit, so to speak. Since then, the market has seen a plethora of free and premium themes introduced, giving designers and front-end developers an opportunity to flex their creative muscle, contribute something to the WordPress community, and maybe even make a buck.
Free vs. Premium – What’s the Difference?
WordPress products—themes, plugins, services, etc.—generally fall into two buckets: free or premium. Free is an obvious adjective, as in there are nearly 2,000 free themes in the WordPress theme directory. Premium themes could be more accurately called commercial themes, or themes you pay for.
Commercial themes come in all shapes and sizes and from a variety of sources, including individuals, theme shops, or collective marketplaces. According to recent research by Support Dash, there are over 1,000 theme providers (in the South, we call that a “crap ton”).
With so many options out there, how can you be sure you’re spending money on a quality product?
How to Find Your Dream Theme
Below are questions you can ask to help narrow your search for a great commercial theme.
1. Does the theme come with documentation?
Maybe you’re the sort that can put together Ikea furniture without a lick of direction, but for most of us it’s good to have instructions. At a minimum, a good theme should include a live demo as well as instructions for setting it up to look like the demo. Bonus points for a video screencast of the setup.
Themes are like babies – they should come with a user guide.
2. When was the theme originally published or last updated?
The web has a short shelf life. If a theme is left in the wild over a year without updates, leave it there. The nature of WordPress (or really, software in general) is ever-evolving in order to address security concerns, take advantage of new features, fix bugs, etc.
Themes are not like cars – there’s no glory in vintage.
3. Is support available?
Theme authors will vary in support offerings – everything from paid help desks to public forums. The method of support isn’t as important as knowing whether a product is actively supported. If you don’t find evidence of support for a theme, keep looking.
Abandoned themes are not like puppies – don’t pick them up.
4. What do the reviews say?
Some themes may include formal reviews right on the sales page, while others may require a little digging to see what people are saying. Google around, ask your network, and find out whether a theme gets glowing reviews or goes down in flames.
Themes are not like the IRS – they should be well-liked.
5. Is the theme author/shop respected in the WordPress community?
Chances are high that a person creating quality themes is also actively engaged in the WordPress community. They’re asking questions, answering questions, and talking about WordPress somewhere. Not sure how to tell? Here’s a quick litmus test: Do a search on WordPress.org and check their involvement (this applies more for individual authors than theme shops). For a theme shop, go check their social media profiles – see who they’re talking to, what they’re saying, and the tone of their communication. When in doubt, ask your network.
Themes are not like Miley Cyrus – they should have a good reputation.
6. Is the code high-quality?
Before you panic, know this: you can figure out some of the basics of code quality without knowing any code. One of the benefits of well-written code is speed. Run the theme demo through a website speed tester like Pingdom to see how it stacks up.
Another way to tell is if a theme’s “sales pitch” boasts an audit by a well-known developer. I mean, if Mark Jaquith says it’s good, it’s good.
Themes are not like chicken McNuggets – they should be good on the inside.
7. Is it mobile responsive?
Do we even need to talk about this? If you’re wanting your site to look equally great on a phone and on a wall display, it needs to have media queries built in for a variety of device sizes.
Themes are not like the cable company – they should be responsive.
8. Does the theme match your business objectives?
There are plenty of oh-so-pretty themes out there, but don’t be drawn in by the siren’s slider! Unless you plan to get into the guts of your theme and customize things, don’t waste your time on themes that don’t match your needs. For instance, if you don’t blog, steer clear of magazine-style layouts. Or if you need to feature four service areas on your home page, don’t pick a design with only three featured widgets. Here’s an article with some helpful tips about selecting themes based on your business goals.
Themes are not like little kids playing soccer – they should point to the right goal.
Ready to go shopping?
You can have as much fun looking for themes as I had wearing “normal” clothes to school. If you have additional recommendations on how to source high-quality commercial themes, leave a comment and discuss!
WordPress maker. Genesis developer. Husband lover. Book reader. Dog petter. Jesus follower. I take myself seriously. Very seriously. @cdils