How To Choose A WordPress Theme – Free, Paid or Custom?

One of the biggest sources of frustrations I hear from clients when using WordPress is choosing a theme that looks good and does what they want it to do.  The next couple of posts will attempt to provide some guidelines to help make this process easier.

Selecting a theme is about more than the way it looks. Functionality and the ability to control options from your WordPress dashboard can be just as important. Many people choose a theme on looks alone and then become frustrated because it doesn’t work the way they want it to.

Generally speaking, there’s 3 types of themes available – free, premium and custom-built. To help decide which category you might be in note down your answers to the following questions:

Which best describes your budget?
a. Non-existent, I want to do everything as cheaply as possible
b. Limited – $50 – $150 approx
c. I am willing to spend at least a few hundred dollars  to get what I want.

Do you have a clear visual brand identity including a logo and color scheme?
a. Nope.
b. I have a logo but that’s about it. I just want a nice-looking site.
c. I have a logo and full visual identity that I want my WordPress site to match

How important is uniqueness?
a. Not very. It won’t hurt my site if others use the same theme
b. I don’t mind paying a little to look different but it’s not mission-critical
c. It’s important that my site looks unique.

What is your level of technical savvy, especially regarding design, CSS & PHP?
a. I’m pretty savvy and/or willing to learn & experiment
b. I get how WordPress generally works but am not too familiar with code.
c. I’m not savvy at all and/or would like to be as hands-off as possible

Very generally speaking, if you know some CSS, you can easily change things like fonts and colors and other cosmetic features. If you know PHP you’ll be able to adapt layout & functionality easier.

Which is more important to you in this process– time or money?
a. Money – I have limited resources and would rather expend my own time and energy
b. Hard to say – I have some resources and would be willing to pay in order to make things easier.
c. Time –  I have a budget and no inclination to get my hands dirty with code. I’d rather someone else handle all that stuff and hand me the finished product.

If you answered mostly A’s you will probably want a free theme that either provides some admin options, or that you can tweak a little. If you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty with code, you can probably get it to do what you want, but if not you’ll have to take the theme pretty much as it comes. Some free themes are better-supported than others, so keep that in mind when selecting.

If you answered mostly B’s you will probably want to look at Premium themes that have a lot of dashboard admin options to make customizations easy. Premium themes usually cost around $30 – $90 and are typically well-coded with support of some kind so you can ask questions if you get stuck.

If you answered mostly C’s you may want a custom designed theme which will guarantee a unique theme that does exactly what you want, with minimal effort on your part. This could cost anywhere from a few hundred, to a few thousand dollars depending on the complexity of what you need.

A 4th option is what I call a ‘blank canvas’ theme such as Thesis or Headway which provide the core functions but little design.  They allow you to lay your design on top of their canvas without coding, using a visual interface and/or dashboard admin options to get the look you want. Only buy such a theme if you know how you want your site to look, or have a design to work from,  otherwise you’ll end up with a theme that blends in with everyone else’s. Poorly designed Thesis themes can be spotted a mile away. If you’re pretty savvy and know what you want your site to look like you could also try a free framework theme like Thematic or Hybrid. These are probably not recommended for absolute beginners as the sheer number of options might become overwhelming.

I realize my outline is quite a generalized way of breaking things down – there could be lots of combination of factors. But no matter what your circumstance, keep in mind that there are often trade-offs based on time, money and savvy. If money is no object, or if you are pretty savvy and can put time into working on your theme– you can usually get what you want, one way or another. However if you are restricted by money, and/or time you may have to make a couple of compromises in the way things look or work.

So now you know roughly what type of theme you’re looking for, what are some of the specifics you should look for in your theme? Read: How To Choose A WordPress Theme – Design & Functionality Considerations

What other considerations go into your decisions to choose a theme? I realize my list is not exhaustive, so let me know your experiences.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Doron Orenstein

    Great article Lucy! Another ‘blank canvas’ theme I like is Frugal ( Thesis is awesome, but if you’re a coder looking to get your hands dirty with exact CSS positioning, Thesis defines many of the widths using .em’s (as opposed to pixels), which means it’s going to be a slow and tedious process getting your site to look pixel-perfect if you’re a designer with a keen eye towards perfection. I haven’t played with Headway that much, so I can’t say too much about that one.

    I personally recommend ALWAYS using premium themes, just because we’re dealing with technology here, which means you’re almost definitely going to get stuck at some point, and free themes often mean that you have nobody to turn to when you do get stuck. Plus, the premium themes usually look so much better (in my opinion). Here is a great site that I always send folks to for a premium theme: (and no, is not my site, although that would be nice…)

    Thanks Lucy!

    1. lucy

      Thanks for your input Doron! Good to know those differences between Frugal and Thesis. I tried to skew this article toward regular folks and their theme choices – but looking at it from a designer/coder perspective would be interesting also. Cheers!

  2. Pingback: How To Choose A Wordpress Theme – Design & Functionality Considerations | Web Training Wheels

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