Patrick Ward words, code, and music

How to Choose a Wordpress Theme

I thought I would write down the basic guidelines I use when choosing a Wordpress theme. While this blog doesn’t currently use Wordpress, I’ve installed, created, fixed, and adjusted numerous Wordpress themes over the years. So, these are guidelines built on experience.

My primary concerns are:

  1. Upgradability
  2. Security
  3. Long term impacts on the blog

There are thousands up thousands of beautiful Wordpress themes out there. But, don’t let the bling dazzle you. Choosing a theme or a design without considering the fundamentals of how Wordpress works can get you into trouble down the road. I’m speaking as someone who has run into those nightmare situations in the past, but who has also been successful in avoiding them because of these simple rules.

So, without further ado, these are the minimal requirements I look for when choosing a theme.

Design focused, not feature focused.

Does the theme promise everything but the kitchen sink? If yes, then avoid it! I see too many themes, especially on sites like Themeforest, that offer a plethora of features and custom admin panels. It sounds enticing, but these should be red alerts, not selling points. Don’t base a decision on how the theme looks, base it on both “how it looks” and “how it’s made”.

A theme should be focused on it’s design, it should be simple in terms of it’s overall features and not try to sell you on being an all-in-one shop for your blog’s needs. Why? Because features are what plugins are for. Themes based on features can be a problem when you want to change that theme down the road. And there is ALWAYS a theme change at some point in the future. Always. Many feature-filled themes are using non-standard tables, extra fields, and/or customized areas that aren’t going to be available in other themes. That means, if your blog is using these features regularly, when you do change the theme, you lose all that work (possibly years worth of snippets, pictures, and adjustments). It’s not worth it.

However, if you choose a theme that is designed focused and then supplement that theme with plugins that have the feature you’re looking for, your blog has a certain amount of future-proofing that can be carried forward from one theme to the next. You win every time when you’re choosing a design and layout focused theme that uses the standard Wordpress features to begin with.

Themes with too many features can be problems when upgrading Wordpress as well, as they tend to take liberties with the standards of a Wordpress install and can turn into real headaches during normal maintenance of the blog.

Wordpress Standards

Nobody wants to be boxed into some stodgy set of standards, but the truth is those standards are there because they’ve been battle tested for years. If you’re choosing a theme that doesn’t at least claim to be based on Wordpress standards, you’re opening yourself up to upgrade issues, security issues, and possible breakage issues in the future.

Wordpress blogs are always being upgraded, your themes should be too. A standards based theme works well with these upgrades and anticipates updates to both Wordpress and the theme itself.

If you’re not regularly updating your Wordpress install with the latest security updates, you’re asking for trouble. Wordpress is a favorite amongst the script kiddies out there, who troll the net looking for unpatched Wordpress installs.

So, if your theme is not able to handle upgrades because it uses some non-standard method or feature, then you’ve just boxed yourself into a bigger nightmare than the stodgy standards box could ever be.

Child Themes

Themes are never exactly what you want them to be. That’s fine, that’s why Wordpress themes are configurable. Wordpress even offers the ability to edit CSS and templates inside Wordpress. Just, don’t do it.

A decent theme is going to be updated over time by the original developer. That’s a good thing. You want that. The problem is, if you’ve made adjustments to that theme, the next time you update the original theme for bug fixes, security issues, etc. then you’ll lose all of your hard work. And believe me, themes can have security issues just as much as Wordpress itself can.

So, when choosing a theme, I always look for one that supports the “Child Theme” pattern. Wordpress itself recommends that you use child themes, because child themes let you fully modify the original theme without touching any of the original stylesheets or code. I can even check my child theme work into a source control system, like git, outside of the original theme. It’s wonderful.

If you’re choosing a theme that doesn’t support child themes, and you have to make changes to that theme at some point (which happens more often than you think), then you’re going to start running into issues when that theme updates.

Updates?

Which brings me to my next point. Whenever I choose I theme, I look at the developer carefully. Are they updating their themes regularly? Have they been tested against the latest version of Wordpress? If not, then avoid them like the plague. Themes that aren’t updated regularly can be serious issues down the road. If the developer isn’t supporting them, then you’re responsible for making bug fixes, security updates, compatibility updates, etc. And if you’re going that far, you might as well make the theme yourself!

Some developers even offer automated updates (like the automated Wordpress updates), which can be a nice bonus and ensure that you’re theme can always be kept up to date.

GPL

Finally, as an option, I try to use themes that are fully GPL compliant. This is the same license that Wordpress is based off of and one that, in theory, all Wordpress themes should be based off of. Many premium/paid-for themes are GPL compliant.

The advantages of a GPL compliant theme are that:

  1. I can go through the styles, template code, etc. and make changes and fixes (in a child theme) if I want to. I can even base a new, custom theme off of that code as long as I maintain the GPL license and give proper credit where it’s due.
  2. The license let’s me use it on multiple sites
  3. The license allows me to carry-forward the good work of all those Wordpress developers before me
  4. Most, but not all, of the themes that I’ve found that aren’t GPL compliant, tend to forget all of the minimal requirements I’ve made above.

Some of the most advanced and largest Theme frameworks out there are GPL based, and that just adds to the continued goodwill of the community.

So, I implore you to consider these guidelines when making theme choices. They aren’t the final word on themes, but they can have significant impact on the safety, health, and extensibility of your Wordpress blog.