How to Choose a WordPress Theme
The theme you choose is one of the most important choices you need to make if you’re running WordPress and WooCommerce.
It's also one of the most often asked questions I see in Facebooks groups and that we get as well.
What’s the best WordPress Theme for Photographers? Where’s the best place to find a good theme? Which one should I use?
There isn’t just one ‘best’ theme or right answer. There are some great WordPress Themes available. And there are some ones you definitely want to avoid.
All of our sites run on the WordPress and WooCommerce platforms. Its something I work with everyday - both the technical and the design part, so we’re very familiar with it and know what works well.
Which is why I’m happy to give a recommendation. I know how much better the experience with WordPress is when you are using good tools.
It should be easy to just recommend a theme for someone. But it can be a little complicated to give an answer.
Let me show you what I mean.
I'll mention for example that we love the Woo Storefront Theme and a couple other themes we use.
3 girls photography is one of our sites where we get asked about the theme we are using.
That site uses our 'framework,' of select WordPress Themes and plugins we use on every site.
These are two of our other sites that use the same WordPress Theme even though they look different.
Now these are some of the best WordPress themes (and plugins) out there, but the problem is when people go to look at the demo sites they see this
This is where it's a little complicated because the average person isn't familiar with WordPress and they're not professional designers.
Many people have no idea how to turn this demo site:
to this finished site
They have no idea from even looking at the demo that it CAN go from A to B easily with just the theme settings and without having to touch any code.
And I totally get that because busy creatives and entrepreneurs just want an easy way to create a website and a platform to build a business on. They have a problem and want a solution not another project. For many, they have no idea what a theme might be capable of, and telling them to imagine what it could look like seems unnecessarily complicated.
This is usually where people can run into trouble.
Inexperienced users end up looking for something at a marketplace like Themeforest which has a lot of really nice looking demo sites. They'll buy something that looks as close to finished or that includes every possible feature because it seems easier.
Which is where problems can start because people have no way of telling the good from the bad.
Do you own your WordPress Theme, or does it own YOU?
I've seen so many things happen as the result of a bad theme and not too long ago someone reached out to me for help with their website. The site runs on WordPress, and the theme they were using was causing some problems.
It was a fairly expensive theme with lots of features and options. It had a built-in page builder, a gallery feature, special SEO settings, custom post types and some other features that were built into the theme.
Unfortunately the site didn’t perform as well as it looked. It was a pain to use and it didn’t work with a plugin feature they wanted to use. Which is why they wanted to switch to a new theme design.
They wanted to know what would happen to their website, SEO data and content when they changed themes.
They weren’t very happy when I told them they’d lose a lot of their content, their SEO optimization data, a lot gallery functionality and that they’d have to pretty much start over with their site.
This is what’s hard about WordPress for non-experienced users. It’s a fantastic tool, but without good advice or knowledge about how it works, it can be a really bad experience.
Which is why we created this guide. To help you choose the right WordPress Theme and what to avoid so you don’t run into problems down the road.
Rather than giving you a list with dozens of the ‘best’ themes, I’m going to break it down to the key fundamentals and criteria for choosing one.
Then you’ll be able to apply those fundamentals to help you choose a theme that’s a good fit for you.
I’ll also share what we use as well as a couple of other ideas to start with.
Let’s get started.
WordPress is a self-hosted web platform
Before we jump into I should mention that there are two ‘versions’ of WordPress.
WordPress.org is the self-hosted version of the software, which means you need to your own web hosting to use it. This option gives you complete ownership and control over every part of your website.
WordPress.com is a free, hosted version of WordPress. You simply signup and they take care of the hosting for you. You can choose from a selection of themes to create your site. This option is more limited because you can’t install additional plugins or customize it.
This article focuses on the self-hosted version.
To run a website on the WordPress Platform you’ll need:
- Good web hosting that’s compatible with WordPress
- WordPress installed on your web host
- Optimized server & security
- SSL - for eCommerce Security requirements and Google recommendations
- A Theme for the design of the site
- Plugins to add functionality
A good specialized WordPress host will take care of installing and optimizing 1, 2, 3 & 4 so you don’t have to deal with techie stuff like you do with some budget hosts. Imagely takes care of 5 and some of 6.
More on that in a bit.
What’s the difference between a WordPress Theme and a Plugin, and which one should use when?
WordPress is a modular system that uses both Themes and Plugins.
The Theme controls the design and layout of the site. Plugins add or extend the functionality for your site.
The best way to describe it is to think of your WordPress site like a house. The theme is like a house’s exterior and structure. It controls the structure, the layout and how it looks on the outside.
Plugins are like features you add to your house, like appliances, central air, wood-floors, and things like that.
This modular type system is what makes WordPress so popular. With over 30,000 plugins, WordPress can do anything for your site that you need it to. It’s extremely flexible and you can easily extend it and a scale it as you grow.
Because the design is separate from the functionality, you don’t have to worry about losing content or features when you change the design or theme.
Unless of course you choose a theme that ties the functionality and content to that particular WordPress Theme.
This is what leads to problems.
The Everything Included Trap
It’s easy to be lured in by the design of a theme that includes lots of shiny features and miss some of the important details. It’s really appealing to purchase a pre-designed template because most of the work is done for you. Especially for busy business owners who just want to get a website setup as easily as possible.
Which is why often times, theme developers add tons of features to themes. It’s easier to sell because understandably many buyers prefer the convenience and price of having everything included.
So when you have a well-designed theme with every feature under the sun it’s a no-brainer - right?
The problem is that’s not how WordPress works best and it’s not what themes are meant for. Often times, themes that come bundled with lots of features, typically cause the most problems and often have conflicts with other plugins.
Problem #1: Everything included
Here's an example of a theme with lots of features built into the theme. I did a walk through of this in the video as well.
First, there are 5 different custom post types included which you can see below. There's one for Testimonials, a Portfolio, a Masonry Gallery, and 2 different Sliders.
These features are built into the theme which means that if you were to change themes, that content would be lost.
You can see the Theme Options panel has a number of different features baked in that will be lost when changing themes
Also note the SEO settings that are included. This means all your optimization settings would be lost for the entire site if you were to change themes.
This theme also mentions compatibility with the Visual Composer Page Builder plugin.
Which would lead many unsuspecting users to believe that the page builder content would remain even if they switched themes. After all it's a plugin and it's not tied to the theme.
But unfortunately, many of those features are specific to the theme.
Here's another example where this Theme removed some of the native Visual Composer features and replaced them with their own.
I mentioned before that Visual Composer is a popular page builder plugin which is why many theme developers include compatibility for it. Which is good.
The problem in this case is the developer removed some native features and replaced those elements with their own. Which is completely unnecessary and a shitty experience for users.
So let's say you have someone who already uses the Visual Composer page builder plugin and they go looking for a theme that is compatible with it because they have pages on their current site that were created with Visual Composer.
Once they turn on this particular theme they will find that any of their existing content that used some of the removed features will be gone or wrapped in a mess of code (see the video around the 14 minute mark).
And of course, if they use any of these features in the new theme, those will be lost should they decide to switch themes.
This is one of the biggest reasons I tell inexperienced users to steer clear of places like Themeforest or any themes that bundle all these plugins and things together.
The next problem is another reason people should be cautious about themes like this.
Problem #2: Out of date or incompatible
Sometimes theme shops will bundle third party plugins with the theme. In addition, many of the themes create customized WooCommerce Templates and or other custom plugin features like I mentioned above.
The problem people can run into is that when for example, a new version of the WooCommerce is plugin is released, you’ll see a notification in your dashboard prompting you to click the update button.
Which of course you do because that's what you're supposed to do. WordPress plugins and themes that aren't updated can be a security risk.
Now let's say you update the WooCommerce plugin before the theme developer has released a update for those custom templates or features you are using. It can cause a lot of problems.
Which again, many people who buy these themes are unaware of. And quite honestly the theme developer should have an update ready to go by the time a major WordPress or WooCommerce version is released since they are notified months in advance.
Here is a screenshot from the admin panel of a theme and on the right side there is info from the Visual Composer Page Builder Plugin sales page.
From the sales page it looks like the plugin hasn't been updated to be compatible with the latest version of WordPress or WooCommerce.
When people have problems with their WordPress sites or WooCommerce store, outdated plugins and themes are often the culprit. They cause incompatibility issues with plugins and can break functionality needed to run the site.
Below we can see that this theme is current and has been recently updated.
It’s better to choose a theme based on design and structure. Add functionality with plugins.
This is what happened to the person I mentioned earlier. The theme they were using created special ‘post types’ and other features that would no longer work when they switched themes.
Which meant they had to pretty much start over with their site.
If they had been using plugins, their functionality and content would have stayed in tact when they changed themes, saving them hours and weeks of a time consuming and expensive redesign.
There are going to be things that need updating when switching themes. But you shouldn't lose key functionality and content when you do.
What options belong in a theme and what belongs in a plugin?
Theme specific items, that are only related to the design or structure of the theme should go in the theme.
Site specific functionality or features should be in a plugin. These are the features that you need no matter what theme you are using. These should be in a plugin.
Things like SEO settings, eCommerce, membership features, gallery features, contact form or social sharing. Those are the things that if you switch themes, you still need.
Criteria for choosing a theme
Every theme defines it’s own settings and options for things like:
- Design settings for font colors, pages, menu items
- Menu/navigation areas
- Widget Areas (sidebar and footers)
- Page templates
- Archive & post options
- Site Layout and width settings
All of the items above are specific to the design and structure of each theme. Make sure to look at different site and page layout options, like full width page options.
1) Design Flexibility & Structure
Will you be able to easily change the number of columns, sidebars or the page layout for different pages and post types throughout the site? How many navigation menus are there, and what kind of layout options does it include?
Things to consider:
- Can you set the page layout for the entire site?
- Can you change the page layout on each page?
- Can you set the site to full browser width?
- Can you set different header and menu layouts (logo center, menu to the right of the logo)
- How many menu areas are there - look for both a top or secondary menu and a primary menu
2) Easy to customize
Is it easy to add your own colors, fonts and settings? How easy is it to create a page and get it to look the way you want? Look for themes that use the WordPress Customizer.
With the customizer you can adjust settings for your site's appearance on the front-end and preview those changes 'live.' While it’s not a guarantee of theme quality, it’s a good sign that the theme is at least working within WordPress standards and proper coding.
The theme below does not work with the WordPress Customizer. Which honestly makes it a pain to have to go back and forth from the theme options panel on the back end, to the front-end of the site to see changes. It takes 2x-3x longer to make a simple adjustment. Plus it makes me cautious because if they aren't working within WordPress quality standards it could mean some issues down the road. Like locking SEO functionality into the theme is considered bad practice (shown below)
3) Responsive and mobile optimized
Many of your site visitors will be browsing your site on a variety of devices, most of which are mobile screens. Make sure the theme displays well on all devices
4) Lightweight and fast
Many things affect speed, like hosting and proper image sizing. A sign that a theme is lightweight is one that doesn't include a lot of additional or unnecessary functionality that can slow a site down.
5) Compatibility with plugins you'll be using
6) Theme is actively developed and updated
Look for a theme that is updated fairly often, particularly when there are major releases for WordPress or WooCommerce if you are using that (see below).
Always buy from a reputable source. Start by looking at the WordPress Theme directory.
- Look at how many people use the theme. How many sales or downloads are there?
- Ratings & Reviews. Look for something with a lot of ratings. Don't look for perfect reviews. Look for a decent number of reviews where the majority are good.
- Don’t choose something that was just released. Wait until there have been a few updates and people using it. That way you can be sure any bugs or kinks have been worked out.
Here's a sales page from Themeforest (and Code Canyon) with information on the latest updates and software version it's compatible with.
7) Good documentation & support
What kind of support is included? Good documentation is essential. This is one of the first places I look when I’m buying a theme or a plugin. I prefer documentation that’s online so I can see before I purchase. The documentation can give you a good feel for how the theme will work and how easy it is to use.
Theme developers sometimes have a free version at wordpress.org. You can try out the free version to see if you like it. Another advantage is that themes accepted into the WordPress repository must meet a certain criteria and WordPress best practices.
Our WordPress Theme 'Framework.'
Your business isn’t static. It grows and adapts quickly to changes. Choosing a theme with nice looking templates with overloaded and unnecessary features limits you to locking you into that theme.
I prefer a 'system' over templates. What is best about WordPress is that it's a flexible, modular framework. That leaves room for you to adapt, experiment and grow instead of being confined to what you started with.
Our WordPress System:
3) A page builder plugin for creating easy drag & drop pages (Beaver Builder)
With the combo above you can build any type of site, including many of the themes with everything included.
If you haven't done so already, watch the video at the 24:00 and 31:00 minute marks where I cover page builders and how they make managing your site much easier. Especially the part about key differences you need to know before you jump into getting one.
Earlier I mentioned that to run a website on the WordPress Platform you'll need:
1) Good web hosting
2) WordPress Installed on your web host
3) Optimized server & security
4) SSL - for eCommerce & Security Requirements
5) A Theme for the design of the site
6) Plugins for additional functionality
A good WordPress Managed Hosting service covers the first 4, and makes setting up and managing a site much easier.
Update: Imagely is no longer offering hosting for photographers at this time.