WordPress Theme Confusion? How To Choose A Premium Theme For Your Blog

WordPress themes are available for free, for a “premium” or for more money a custom personal theme, but how do you choose between which type, and then choose which theme? I’m a blog customizer, I spend my days editing, changing and (hopefully) improving blogs, so I hope I’m in a position to know what I’m talking about.

The Options

A question that I get asked regularly is “Should I buy a premium theme?”. This is the wrong question, the real question is “What theme is best for me?” whether that’s a free one, a premium one, or a custom one.

Theme Jargon – Some terms to know:

– “Theme” – the design of your site. Sometimes called a skin, or a template, it’s the ‘clothes’ of your website. Template is often used interchangeably as themes are made up of template files.
– “Magazine Style” – all this means is rather than showing the Posts in a list on the home page they may show the top posts from different categories, perhaps with an image slider for the latest or featured posts. There are many examples that we’ll go through below.
– “Columns” – Your content counts as a column, so a two column theme means one content column and one sidebar. If you want two sidebars, you will need a three column theme.
– “Widget ready” – You can use sidebar widgets, so can manage your sidebar more easily. Also sometimes called “widgetized sidebars”.
– “Flexible Width” – The width of the site will expand and contract depending on the width of the browser window and/or the users screen size. The alternative is “fixed width” and is more commonly used.
– “Theme Options” – Some templates have an options panel to configure elements of the site without any coding.
– “Child Theme” – This is a theme that works off another (parent) theme. Sometimes these can be referred to as skins but more accurately are a separate theme you install which requires the other ‘parent’ to work.
– “Theme Framework” – Used to describe a basis from which other themes can be created. Thesis and Headway are often described as theme frameworks outright, while Woo Themes and StudioPress create all their different themes based on their own frameworks to provide commonality of options and coding.

So the first thing to do is to take a look at what you like the look of. Then we can talk about your skill level and knowledge with regards to changing the theme.

Free Themes

There are a lot of free themes out there, and just because they’re free doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any less well written or lack some of the options of their paid-for counterparts.

http://wordpress.org/extend/themes/ is the official repository of themes, with over a 1,000 of them for you to peruse.

With thousands of options it can be hard to choose and time consuming. However this time is not wasted as will give you an impression what is out there and. Most sites give you filtering options so you can narrow by by color (though colors can be changed), layout, number of columns and so on.

So what are the good free WordPress themes? Atahualpa has a LOT of back end options to customize your site (and possibly the World’s Largest Save Button™); Thematic looks basic but has a lot of widget ready areas for easy customization; LightWord is clean and simple; I do love Mimbo for a magazine layout that now has a Pro (premium) version too; Freemium looks great; The Latest is clean and bright for a magazine style theme.

There are plenty more great ones, even one that looks like the WordPress Dashboard. Why would you want this? I’ve no idea.

Premium Themes

These are ones that you have to pay for, the “premium”. The advantages are:
Theme options menu. This can range from changing colors, to changing layout, adding/removing links, advert blocks, SEO options, from the simple to the very complex.

Support forums. This is the preferred way WordPress/Automattic want premium authors to offer differentiation to free themes, by providing a support forum. Most good premium themes will have a support forum to answer your technical and how-to questions. Do not underestimate the value of this, often you can cut and paste from a similar question that has already been posted to easily solve something that has been bugging you for days.

Updates. As the theme author is getting paid for their work they will often provide updates that fix bugs or add features. Usually these are free upgrades to paid members.

There main disadvantage is that licenses can be restrictive. You may only be able to use it on one or two sites, or there may be some footer attribution link back to the author that you cannot remove. Personally I try to avoid these, and go with GPL themes – you can read more about GPL WordPress themes here – but to summarize it’s best to go with GPL if you can. Go here for a list of commercial GPL themes.

Premium themes I have used are (most of these are affiliate links as I promote them so often I thought I might as well get some benefit, but feel free not to use them and go to the sites directly):

1. WordPress.org Commercial GPL Themes – the official list.

2. Solostream offer them mostly in “magazine-style” and have been recently updated with pretty great selection that have nice features, particularly the auto-thumbnail resizing and a featured posts slider/glider.

3. Woo Themes have some free options too but an awesome selection of paid-for themes. Regularly updated, they have themes in all different categories for different types of websites, plus each theme usually comes with between 5 and 10 in-built colors schemes you can switch between. Usually there are a great number of menu options too. They have an excellent demo viewer on their site where you can switch between any template and style.

4. StudioPress sell the Genesis framework and a great selection of child themes.

5. Thesis is the daddy of all premium themes though it is lagging behind a little at the moment (the new version will address that I’m sure). Brilliant and a pain to work with in equal measure, it gives you a vast number of menu options, but something as simple as adding a header image is a mystery to the new user. Changing layouts, fonts, colors and what appears on the page is as easy as can be (and as fun), but it’s plain vanilla “out of the box” and can take some time and knowledge to make it look different to all the other Thesis sites out there.

6. Headway has a unique Visual Editor that lets you easily change the layout and look and feel of your blog right in front of your eyes. This makes it simple to change colors and fonts, and completely removes the need for any coding. There is a learning curve in how the system works and what the options do, and it’s not perfect (yet) in many ways, but is a fantastic option for the non-technical blogger.

7. Theme Forest is different as it takes user submitted themes and sells them for a commission.

8. Builder Theme from iThemes is a great theme with a massively user customizable layout via a menu options page. They have lots of other great themes there too, but BUilder has a powerful, if potentially overwhelming, set of options.

Custom Themes

The truly professional blogger will get a unique custom theme. The advantage of this is that no-one else will have the same design as you, and you can brand it more with your own, or your business personality.

This can be done from scratch, or is often done using a customized premium theme framework like Thesis or Headway or others. There are different ways of approaching it. You can get a designer to develop a design of your site and then send it to a coder or customizer like me who can then code it onto the theme framework of your choice or from scratch.

Some companies design and code themes, I actually didn’t design my own site, which gets many compliments. This was done by the wonderful guys over at Unique Blog Designs.

The downside of course is the cost, and it can be quite substantial whether you pay a designer and coder separately or together, it doesn’t come cheap. However it’s your site, it’s your brand, it’s your business. An advert in the paper or Yellow/White pages lasts only a short time and can cost 25% of a unique blog design. It’s an investment like any other.

So how do you choose a theme?

The ultimate question! There are a few guidelines:

Design/look. This is the #1 criteria if cost is an issue. The closer the design is to what you want then the cheaper it will be in terms of paying someone (like me) to change it, or in terms of your time changing it yourself. Do you care if other people have the same theme? If not then a free theme that looks the way you want it will work fine.

Theme options. Some free and most premium themes come with menu options that control a variety of things. Do you think you’ll want to easily adjust colors? Or choose between different layouts? Or select how posts appear and perhaps from different categories? Then you may need one that has a strong options panel.

Technical expertise. Do you know some CSS and HTML? Are you comfortable changing how to query posts using PHP? If so, or you think you can learn, then design is again your #1 factor. If not, then best to make a choice that doesn’t involve these unless you can find someone to do them for you.

Exact requirements. If you require an exact look and feel then you (or someone else) will need to customize either a free or premium theme, or get a complete custom one written for you.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I’ve worked on some great and horrible looking sites that the owner has thought the complete opposite and either hated what I did or loved something I loathed. My place is not to judge, it’s to do what is required, and help you make the best choice for your circumstances.

If you have any questions please let me know. Have I missed off your favorite? Are there are other great themes that I should recommend?

70 thoughts on “WordPress Theme Confusion? How To Choose A Premium Theme For Your Blog”

  1. This post seems to be a couple years old. Any update on your comments about Thesis now that 2.0 is available. I’m a complete novice and currently working with a simple theme that I hate. I have a great technical person, but I will probably do the basic design work (color, photos, fonts etc). I’ve had recommendations about Thesis 2.0 and Woo Themes. Suggestions, advice?

    1. Hi Nancy. Thesis 2.0 was pretty terrible for a general user, but 2.1 has done a great job of simplifying things and extending functionality to make it mush more usable and quicker to work with. The skin system is pretty good but there is a learning curve where you might be better off taking a Woo Themes and creating a child theme as 90% of the layout and design might already be done for you. It’s really a personal decision, I would watch some videos of Thesis 2 and see if it’s something you’re willing to learn.

    1. Well it’s cheap and very bright! Personally I like the responsiveness but not the lack of a sidebar. I also prefer a sans-serif font but that’s a personal opinion. Always nice to see new themes though.

  2. I really like your way of expressing the opinions and sharing the information. It is good to move as chance bring new things in life, paves the way for advancement, etc. But it is well known to everyone that moving to new location with bulk of goods is not an easy task to move or shift from one place to other place because I have experienced about that and I face the problem like that.

  3. I think this is an informative post and it is very useful and knowledgeable, great tool. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well. In fact your creative writing abilities has inspired me.

  4. I’ve really enjoyed reading your different articles. They are so informative and interesting. This post give truly quality information. I’m definitely going to look into it. Really very useful tips are provided here. thank you so much.Keep up the good works.

  5. I like your commentary on licensing restrictions and the advantages of gpl themes. I tend to try to keep it simple and try to find a theme that is close to what I need as possible. Otherwise I tend to overdue the customization run the risk of having the theme updates wreak havoc on things. I have written a similar article of my checklist, called 9 Must Dos Before Choosing a WordPress Theme, take a look and let me know your thoughts.



    1. That’s what I find is best too, something that is close to your vision and then customize that. Thanks for stopping by, I’ll check out your article.

  6. Great information here.  For me I finally got tired of trying to customize themes and figure things out that I needed to change.  I went for the paid Thesis theme, which BTW, I love. 

    Changes like going to 1,2 or 3 columns can be done with a few clicks. Colors and fonts are easy to change and just a ton of other are simple and easy to understand.

    1. Thanks for the comment Liz! the only thing I don’t like about Thesis is it’s difficult for the average user to have different sidebar/column order on different Pages. If you want one layout or a full width page for the site then it’s great.

  7. Such a great collection which are looks awesome. I really love it & inspired of the design works made with. Thank you so much for sharing such a wonderful

    listing. Keep sharing good things like this always, Congrats.


    Also worth check out this site for some more inspiration on best wordpress themes available on the net & also where free wordpress themes.

  8. I'd like to schedule some time with you to go over themes with you. Now, that I've had several months with my current theme, I have a list of things that I'd like to work better. I clicked on a few and then got a little sidetracked.

  9. I'd like to schedule some time with you to go over themes with you. Now, that I've had several months with my current theme, I have a list of things that I'd like to work better. I clicked on a few and then got a little sidetracked.

  10. I wish I'd had a resource like this when I was trying to figure out which premium theme to get, or if I even needed one. This is full of great information, and should be a “must read” for any WordPress blogger.

  11. Thanks Keller, I saw the launch of your new site, looks great! Powerful theme options are the way to go, though makes the job of customizers, like me, sometimes more difficult, it gives the end user much more flexibility.

  12. Great and thorough post as usual Joel! I've really enjoyed learning how to work with WordPress themes. Working with the theme options page was definitely the biggest challenge due to the php, but the power you can unleash with it is amazing!

    I'm the new kid on the block in the premium WP theme market and very excited to get more themes developed. You're absolutely right in saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder – this is one of the reasons I'm so excited to work on my own designs rather than my clients' – I get to make the final decisions on the creatives!

  13. If no one can see the content or it's too distracting around it then it makes a big difference to have a nicer theme. It's very personal, come clients still tweak their themes two years after setting them up with me!

  14. Joel,

    I agree with Corinne, that content far out-ways blog theme.

    That said, my blog is cluttered, and I need to change to the 2-column theme or de-clutter the 3-column theme. I hope to get to it sooner rather than later.


  15. I love how you pulled so many resources together in one post. Definitely a handy list! And you're so right about Thesis being brilliant and difficult at the same time, lol. You should see my attempts at header images! Ouch. But I'm learning….

  16. I haven't used the Frugal theme before, so thanks for letting me know. You're right about the tone being set by design, while it's not the most important part, it's certainly a integral part of the overall feel and mood of the site I agree.

  17. Hi Joel, I recently redid my theme using Frugal and I love the ease, flexibility and control it gives me. The one thing that I look for these days is a good support system, it's invaluable when you find yourself stuck and can save days of troubleshooting.

    I do think that the look is important to the brand and feeling you want to give people who visit. I know that there are a few that I subscribe to regularly because I am awe struck every time I visit at the design and pictures as well as the content. I guess you could say it sets the tone or mood for your content at a glance – that can only help and I think also can effect who links to you.

  18. Having common elements does help of course, I always look in the same place for the navigation, a search box, a newsletter form and so on. However most sites can be customized so it's not a huge effort to make look different and perhaps have more of your personality on there.

  19. Hi Joel,

    As a client of yours, i have been most hsppy with my thesis theme, and I am wondering whether it is a benefit that it looks similar to many others. I suspect we notice these things rather more than a non blogger user. But then i also see non blogs, beginning to look rather like a regular blog theme… so maybe a ubiquitous look is not so bad

  20. If you don't know HTML how do you add a header image in Thesis? You can't. You don't even need FTP to upload the image you can use the WordPress Media Uploader but then how do you set it as the header image. Of course it's easy when you know how and if you can copy and paste into Thesis Openhook then it's not hard, but it could be much easier. Happy to talk about a blog post if you want 🙂

  21. It has more to do with how easy your blog is to use. Is it easy on the eye? Can people easily find navigation elements, the search and sign up for your newsletter? Theme can have a big impact on things like that. If you're not noticing the design, then I guess it's doing half it's job well. Thanks for the kind comment about the content!

  22. No question Thesis comes with pros and cons, too. I wish the most commonly used widgets and widget formatting (RSS, opt-in, follow-me) would come click-ready. That said, why header image is a con, I don't quite understand. Using SnagIt & ftp, changing my header is literally a 1-minute thing. Might be something for my next video/blog post 🙂 If interested, skype or email me. B@

  23. I am not convinced that a theme has a lot to do with your blog's popularity. As long as a blog is not cluttered with stuff and ads, I don't pay too much attention.

    I do pay attention to the content. This one is exceptional.

  24. Joel, an awesome resource for bloggers of all levels and really you go through the transformation and stages of being a blogger. As a newbie people might try a free theme. As they grow maybe a premium theme and then eventually a custom theme for those who have been around enough to have specific needs. this is a post the everyone involved in the industry should read if you use wordpress or not.

  25. Joel,

    For anyone starting out their blog … this is priceless information.

    I know I paid a lot for a custom-SEO-friendly theme a few years ago that I was able to adapt for a new blog and I can say that I have no regrets.

    You theme is a huge part of the online image and you want to choose it carefully,


  26. Whether it will be effective or just look terrible will depend upon how well you manage to set up a theme (template) for it. In that respect it is no different from any CMS or other means of creating websites.

  27. Thanks, I appreciate that! It really depends on what you're a novice in. For Premium themes, if it's HTML and CSS then choose Headway or Flexx. If it's the web and computers then perhaps Flexx will be easier than Headway, though they've just added some great tutorials and videos to the new version. If you're just a novice with WordPress then Headway or Thesis (if you know CSS).

  28. Yes, Flexx is a good theme that I haven't used too often but will practice more with if I ever get the time.
    Squeeze Theme is pretty good too, the new AWeber code has made it a little more difficult but I do find it very useful.

  29. Most themes are set up for basic SEO and WordPress helps a bit. Personally I like to use the All in One SEO plugin rather than the inbuilt theme SEO option as if you decide the change themes what happens to all those settings? If you keep the plugin it will be transferred over if you decide to change.

  30. Joel — your site and information is so impressive. Now I know where to start and finish when I am ready to try wordpress. Thanks for the great information on Themes. What do you recommend for a “novice” blogger.

  31. It's not deliberately linkbait Beat, but that's a good point. Yes Thesis is a good option and I do love working with it, but there are a few annoyances such as adding a header image or custom templates, but they should be improved in the next release.

  32. I started with a free theme and within a day I just HAD to change. It was so restrictive and 'clunky'. Took me hours to change anything!

    Did a bit of research and came across the FLEXX theme and have never looked back…well when I say never…I did buy Thesis because everyone raved about it (good story about following the crowd there!)…but I never opened the box (I know it doesn’t come in a box but you know what I mean).

    So I have Thesis taking up disc space on my PC but I find Flexx so easy to use and change…so do my clients.

    What about the squeeze theme for squeeze pages…it’s pretty neat and fast.


  33. I've had Thesis for some time now and have gradually got the hang of it. I do believe it helps with SEO, but its hard to quantify to what extent. Once you've bought a theme, you then don't want to try anything else! Good in depth review, although I skimmed bits because I didn't want to read there is something better than Thesis out there!

  34. This is a post of exceptional depth, a great resource. Looking linkbait to me – do you intend make a Squidoo lens from/with it? A friend just started blogging told me he's going WOO. How he made that decision I'll never know. I think it's like with cars – we love to think we have rational reasons for the choices we make, but the actual decision is more emotional than that, isn't it? The trick is to make it as rational as possible, and your post and process is designed for just that beautifully. Cheers, B@ PS. Went with Thesis because to non-techies such as I, “middle of the road” seems safe … until we can afford custom design … lol.

  35. It is a confusing world, but I'd be happy to help you through it. So much is personal taste, needs and ability. Even the easiest theme to change requires knowing how to change it, so everyone has to start from the beginning sometime.

  36. Hi Joel,
    Yes, I'm confused. I'd like to schedule some time with you to go over themes with you. Now, that I've had several months with my current theme, I have a list of things that I'd like to work better. I clicked on a few and then got a little sidetracked. I could get lost looking at so many. I'll show you my list – let me know what you charge. I definitely need some guidance 😀

  37. Hi Joel,

    I really like the way you can explain things. I am the person that needs a simple theme or someone to help me create what I have in mind. I do like the way you exlpain the names of themes, so people like me can remember a name and have some idea of what they are talking about.

    Thanks for keeping it simple. Is appreciated

  38. I agree with your eval of Thesis, I have been using some themes from iThemes and like them. You have a great post here, great info. Providing the jargon is a great touch for beginners. I will be sending some of my coaching clients over to read this.

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