In WordPress, the “theme” is what controls how your site looks. That includes the colors, fonts, page layouts, navigation, footer, and whether your site is “responsive” (works on any size device, from phone to desktop). In short, the theme is what makes your site yours, giving it a unique look.
From Prebuilt to Custom
There are many ways to get a theme. On the fast and cheap end, you can download a prebuilt theme—some are free while others cost money—and install it on your site right away. On the other end of the spectrum, you can work with a designer and developer to design and code a custom theme made specifically for your organization. Between those two extremes is the option of “child themes,” which take an existing theme and then modify it as desired using code.
Free vs. Paid
In the world of WordPress themes, “you get what you pay for” isn’t always true! Because WordPress is a vibrant open source community, many amazing designers and coders release and maintain their work for free. On the flip side, WordPress is so popular that lots of people see commercial themes as a way to make a lot of money with shoddy themes.
That’s why I only trust and recommend a small number of theme authors and shops, many of which provide free themes as well as paid.
Fashion, Not Function
Assuming you’re looking for a prebuilt theme, either to use as your site’s theme or the “parent” to a child theme, focus on how it looks!
That may seem obvious, but many themes are advertised for their features rather than how they look. (Things like slideshows, “shortcodes,” calendars, maps, and other advanced functions are what plugins are for, and that’s what you’ll do once you’ve found a theme.)
You should look for a theme with a design that “feels” right and lets you customize the fewest possible things while meeting your needs.
Complex themes with lots of options may occasionally be the right fit for you, but consider the downsides too. Large, complex themes:
- put more of the design burden on you, rather than looking great out of the box.
- have a steeper learning curve and take longer to set up.
- may contain more complex code that’s prone to breaking or slowing down your site.
Evaluating a Theme
When reviewing a theme, you need to make sure the theme is a right fit and that it’s high-quality.
Is this me?
To ascertain the fit, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this “feel” like my organization?
- Will my logo, menu, and images look good the way this theme treats them?
- Does the design require too much or too little content for what my organization can realistically produce?
- Example 1: The home page has 6 featured stories but you don’t expect to write more than one per month.
- Example 2: The theme has a sidebar but you don’t have the content to fill it.
- Do images in the design need to be very large to look good? If so, do I have enough large, high-quality images to fill it. (This is a common problem.)
- If the default colors, don’t match my organization’s color scheme, are there settings to change them?
If you hope to use an unmodified pre-built theme, be ready to find a “good enough” fit. Finding a theme that feels about “75% right” is probably a good outcome in my experience. A theme with an unexpected but interesting design element or two can be a good way to make your site unique!
Will this theme last?
When you’re trying to ascertain quality, consider the following aspects:
- When was the theme released and last-updated? You want something that’s fairly current and kept up-to-date.
- Is the theme explicitly labeled as “accessible”? Themes that are “accessible” are usually coded with more care.
- Does the theme support the WordPress block editor (aka “Block Styles” aka “Gutenberg support”)? These themes are staying up-to-date with modern WordPress.
- Does the theme author offer technical support if you run into problems? You may need it.
- Is there documentation available for the theme? If so, read some of it, see if you can follow it, and imagine using it.
- Does the theme have a lot of downloads/purchases and a high rating (if a rating is available)? A popular theme is more likely to be maintained.
- If you need to purchase the theme, is there a refund policy? If so, the author is standing behind their work.
Making a Theme Your Own
Once you’ve selected a theme (check out the Recommended Themes!), you’ll need to customize your theme.