When I started my first WordPress site in 2009, I looked for a theme (the design and layout for your site) that looked good. I reasoned that, since the theme controlled the look of the website, picking one that looked nice was all that was important.
5 years and probably 50 different WordPress themes later, I care more about the features and stability of the theme than the design. I want my site to look good, but more importantly I want my site to work perfectly for each visitor to come to my website.
If you want to save some time and skip reading this post, I’ll summarize this entire page in four sentences: Choosing a poorly coded WordPress themes can absolutely destroy your website. Choosing a theme is less important than choosing the framework for your theme. I highly recommend X Theme by Themeco for anyone. I you really don’t like X Theme, then you can use any theme by Woothemes for your first theme because it is simple to use and the code is solid. StudioPress.com is a good option for more advanced WordPress users who want to tweak to their heart’s content and feel comfortable with basic code but even in this case my top recommendation is for X Theme.
What I Learned The Hard Way
My first two WordPress themes were from CodeCanyon.com. Think of CodeCanyon as the etsy of digital products. Web designers can create a theme and sell it on CodeCanyon to multiple buyers. The problem with this is that the designer doesn’t care about you after the sale. They may update the theme periodically to keep users from leaving a negative review, but if they find the theme isn’t selling well, they often abandon it and fail to update it.
If a designer doesn’t update a theme, it will very likely run into conflicts with plugins, or even become incompatible with future versions of the WordPress core.
Also, the designer really only cares to get you to buy. So little things that you won’t notice until after the sale (like providing an easy upload for your logo instead of forcing you to ftp the logo to your site) are rarely added into these themes.
My theme from CodeCanyon did very well for month one, month two, and then suddenly in month three I went to my website and it had an error related to the theme. The entire site was down and I didn’t have the technical expertise at the time to rescue it. I had to start over from scratch. Ugh! All because I wanted to save a few bucks on a theme.
Step One to Choosing the Right Theme
I learned over time that while a WordPress theme can be a very simple design, the best themes are built around a Framework. A framework is simply a base of code that is applied to all themes from a certain designer. Some of the popular frameworks are Genesis, Thesis, X Theme and Woothemes.
I generally recommend sticking with one of the more popular theme frameworks. They are from reputable companies who have stood the test of time, and proved to their users that they will continually update and make their themes compatible with changes to WordPress and other plugins.
In fact, most major plugins will alter their plugins to make them work well with these major frameworks, because they know so many people are using them. So step one is to choose a framework for your theme, not the theme itself.
My Recommendation for Your First WordPress Framework
I feel very strongly that if you can’t confidently write code or if you don’t have much experience with WordPress that you should choose either X Theme or a theme from Woothemes and not even consider anything else (and no–that’s not an affiliate link. I recommend Woothemes because I like them. They aren’t paying me to say that). Woothemes is a very reputable company and creates rock solid themes that you won’t run into errors with and X Theme is just really powerful and easy to use.
The main reason to choose these themes is because of how simple they make it to use the theme and get up and running quickly. Want to add your logo to the theme? You’ll find a convenient uploader. Want to add your Google Analytics tracking code? There will be a convenient spot for that so you aren’t left wondering how to implement it. There are so many features of in these frameworks that make the themes a breeze to get set up. It’s rare that I need to hop into the code to customize X Theme or a theme from Woothemes. They make everything easy to change.
My favorite themes on the WooThemes Framework
By far, the most popular theme for WooThemes is Canvas. Canvas is a very flexible theme that you can customize and tweak a lot without hopping into the code. It is a responsive theme which means it will size nicely for any size of screen or mobile device.
Another theme from WooThemes that I am particularly fond of is the Headlines theme. I used this theme for 2 years on my biggest website and it never gave me troubles, offered clean and simple navigation so users could find what they are looking for, and looks nice. The only trouble with this theme is that it is not responsive, meaning it doesn’t resize to fit the screen (on a mobile device you have to pinch and zoom). A simple fix for that is to simply use the WpTouch plugin to make the site responsive.
The WordPress Frameworks that I Use
A couple years ago, I switched away from WooThemes and over to Genesis for my main websites. I still use Woothemes for my smaller sites because it is quicker to set up for me, but on my main sites I like to tweak. My reason for leaving Woothemes was twofold (1) I had heard good things about the speed of Genesis themes and wanted to see if I could improve my page load times, and (2) I just wasn’t happy with the design of the magazine-style responsive themes available on Woothemes.
The real benefit of Genesis, as I see it, is that there is such a tremendous following of serious WordPress users using it that there are endless resources available for tweaking it. For example, when I wanted to remove the sidebar for mobile users, I immediately found the code for doing that with a simple Google search for “Remove sidebar for Genesis theme.” Piece of cake. If I want to add a different welcome message for each category of my site, it’s simple to do as well. If you feel moderately comfortable working with code but still need help from others, Genesis is perfect!
I mentioned above that I was hoping to see an improvement in my page load times by moving over to Genesis. I did, but the improvement was minor.
My favorite themes on the Genesis Framework
Quite simply, I like the sample theme that comes with the framework the best. That’s what I used for a while on this site as well as ImprovePhotography.com. I have customized it a fair bit, but I like the simple navigation and clean layout.
I’d be curious to try the Metro Theme as well.
Update: X Theme
About a year ago, though, I made the switch on a lot of my sites including this one and ImprovePhotography.com to X Theme. There are a lot of reasons why I made the switch but the short story is that X Theme is extremely customizable, a lot like Genesis, but it’s so easy to use. There are so many shortcodes that make customizing your site really easy to do. And the framework is powerful. I encourage you to read through my review of X Theme here if you’re at all interested.