Top tips for choosing your WordPress theme

If you have dipped your toe into the WordPress waters even a little bit, you cannot fail to have noticed that there are thousands of designs available to you, called ‘themes’.

One of the (many) great features of WordPress is its ‘dynamic formatting’. This means that your content – all those pages, posts and words you’ve spent so long planning and writing – are separated from the system that controls how that content appears. This system that controls your WordPress site’s appearance is called the ‘theme’.

It’s not surprising that we always have queries about themes from students in our WordPress training sessions. The most common questions are: ‘How do I choose a theme?’, ‘How can I change my theme?’ and ‘How can I customize my theme?’

We will address all of these questions in handy bite-size pieces in future WordPress Wednesday tips. If you’d like to receive all of our tips, please just click here to sign up. In this post though, we will begin discussing some of the factors to consider before choosing your first WordPress theme.

Themes are created by a broad community of programmers with different ideas about how best to represent content. Programmers also offer varying levels of customization, so it can be tricky to successfully compare two different themes side-by-side in order to figure out which one might be the best-fit for your own vision. Creating a checklist ahead of picking out a theme is also difficult for the same reasons. However, there are some factors that you can look out for before selection.

Firstly, it’s important to understand why there are different groups and types of themes available. Some may be tailored for text-heavy content. Others may lend themselves more to image-based content such as photos or diagrams. While others still might strike a balance between the two approaches. To begin with then, think about what you want from your new site, and the likely balance of text or visual content you would most commonly upload. You might even like to think more specifically about your business, and select a template designed solely with your industry in mind, such as a template built for a restaurant, hotel, hairdresser or retail business, for example.

To get your creative juices flowing, we’ve found that themeforest can be a useful place to start. This resource collates and resells themes. But WordPress does also create its own very popular themes, such as twentyeleven, twentytwelve, and you guessed it, twentythirteen.

Some handy advice:

  • Understand that it may take time to find the perfect theme. After all, it’s bound to be confusing going into a store that sells 70,000 items without really knowing what you’re looking for. Set some time aside, maybe half a day, list some of the things you want or need in your theme, and enjoy the selection process
  • Ask yourself some basic layout questions. How many columns does the theme have and can this be changed? Do you want it to be mobile accessible? Does the theme include the ability to install social buttons (or turn them off and install them yourself using a widget?) Can you change the colors easily? What size options are there for the text? Does the theme have an image on the home page, above the fold (on the top half of the screen) and can this be changed? Do you want a theme that is ready made for your specific business?
  • How individual must your theme be? How frequently has the theme been downloaded to date? If it is already used by a lot of other WordPress users, what do their reviews say (read them, don’t just look at the star rating.) What support messages have cropped up, and how frequently are they answered or resolved?
  • Don’t spend weeks looking for a perfect theme. Returning to our shopping analogy, while we think it’s important that you set aside half a day or so to browse, at some point you really must try things on for size and install some themes. Once you install a theme you quickly gain a better understanding of how much it can be customized, and how well your content fits
  • If you are starting a new website or blog you will need to generate some content. Around three blog posts, three separate pages and at least one menu should allow you to assess how your theme will display different content. Practice changing things too, for example switching between blog posts with featured images, galleries or no images. Upload different post types and different page templates to see what difference it makes to display a static home page versus a list of your recent posts
  • Put different content in the sidebars and refresh your webpage. Look to see which sidebar content is showing in which areas, and whether you like it that way. Many themes allow you to turn various side bars on and off, so check your new theme settings. Some themes, such as twentytwelve alter the sidebar layout from one, two or three columns, depending on how many sidebars you put widgets in. Many themes put sidebars in different places depending on whether you are on your home page, your posts page or a category or archive page
  • Get with the widgets. Head to the dashboard and select ‘appearance’ > ’widgets’ to discover what widgetized areas are available and see which ‘theme widgets’ come with your potential theme choice. In the bottom part of this page you might find some ‘Inactive Widgets’ left over from previous theme installations. Drag widgets from here back into the new theme’s sidebar to restore your old widgets with all their settings intact

As we said previously, and will discuss again in future WordPress training sessions and WordPress Wednesday tips, there are many considerations surrounding the topic of themes. Our advice is to try out lots of different things for yourself before focusing on just one theme. Refresh your web page a lot to see what differences are made to how your site looks. Click around your site to see how changing things in the settings alters the feel of your website. And of course, don’t forget to have fun playing with all the theme elements available, to ensure the right choice for you and your business.