A theme is like the clothes for your WordPress site. The theme that you choose will affect the way that your site looks.
The WordPress repository contains a large selection of free themes at https://wordpress.org/themes/.
Additionally, there are many premium paid for themes available. Some of these have free versions in the repository, you can find others on https://themeforest.net/, while some have their own dedicated websites.
Often, new WordPress site owners jump straight into adding a premium theme. It’s understandable as they want to create a site that stands out.
If you’re new to WordPress though, the best advice I can give you is don’t buy a premium theme.
Why you shouldn’t start with a premium theme
I’m not saying you should never buy a premium theme, just don’t buy one when you’re starting out.
Lots of WordPress users will disagree with me, but here are a few reasons why I give this advice.
Steep learning curve
Some of the most popular premium themes are highly flexible and you can see demo sites that have been set in all sorts of different configurations.
Recreating some of these site layouts can become a frustrating experience as there is so much involved in achieving a specific layout and look.
WordPress along with the essential plugins I’ve recommended already presents you with a reasonable learning curve. Don’t make it even steeper by throwing a feature packed and super flexible premium theme into the mix.
It seems common to include a bundle of plugins that are installed along with the theme. I think they’re included to help make the theme look better value, as often the cost of the plugins when bought separately can be more than the cost of the theme.
If you really need those plugins, then that’s great. In many cases though, they just fill up and complicate the admin screens.
They can also lead to site owners using the wrong tool for a job and getting frustrated with WordPress. I’ve helped on at least two WordPress sites where a bundled image slider plugin had been used to create a static hero image section on a home page.
They often focus on features you don’t need
Most premium themes I’ve seen sell their features, not the benefits. It almost feels like some kind of arms race as each theme developer tries to grow their list of features.
Don’t get distracted by shiny objects. I always think the journey that the Etsy.com website has taken is a good lesson in this.
Back in 2005 when it launched, Etsy was a Flash powered extravaganza. They thought deeply about how they could create a site that stood out from everything else with a surprisingly immersive experience for the time.
On their homepage, feeds of recently added products flew towards you in stream of cards that you could click to go to the product. It looked stunning but was bloody horrible to use.
There was another feature I remember. It was like a pin board possibly, perhaps where you could save products you liked. I’m really not sure what it was for, I just remember it was my first experience of a physics engine on the web.
You could click and grab one of the things on the board and “throw” it. It would then bounce off the sides of the board as it slowed like friction was affecting it. Every time I visited Etsy, I spent minutes playing with that before leaving again because I’d forgotten why I’d gone to Etsy in the first place.
Look at Etsy now and it’s just Amazon in a pretty frock. They learned the hard way that pointless features obstruct a site’s true purpose and often hurt the user experience, ultimately reducing conversions and your income.
Some are complete arse
Just because you’re paying for a theme is no guarantee of quality. Why pay for garbage when you can get it for free?
A couple of years ago, a friend of my wife who had updated their site with a premium “ecommerce enabled” (developer’s words, not mine) theme asked my opinion.
My first comment was “where’s the shopping cart?”
That not cheap “ecommerce enabled” theme didn’t have a shopping cart.
What it did have was a circular slot in the middle of the home screen that you could insert your logo into. Then when someone moved their cursor over it, the logo rotated about 20 degrees anti-clockwise.
Rotating logo = feature. Pretty crap feature too.
Shopping cart = benefit. Very, very important benefit on an ecommerce site in fact.
What do I recommend?
This depends on how much of a design control freak you are. For years I’ve been using one of two themes for every site I’ve built. These have given me enough flexibility for what I need, while also keeping everything pretty simple. I should recognize that I’m able to write code to further customize these two though, which may not be an option for you.
Recently I’ve also started to use a third theme that has been designed to work with the Gutenberg page editor. The other themes I use also work with Gutenberg, but as older themes, they weren’t designed with Gutenberg in mind from the outset because it didn’t exist. On a practical level, it may not make much difference..
This newer theme offers significantly more options for customization than those I previously used. However, it’s a double edged sword as more design options mean more design decisions to make.
Let’s look at the quick to setup versus more flexible option.
Quick to setup
If I’m not starting from scratch, for most things I use a free theme called GeneratePress (https://wordpress.org/themes/generatepress/). It’s a great base to start getting used to working with WordPress and there’s a premium version you could upgrade to later.
However, a perhaps slightly prettier alternative is Astra (https://wordpress.org/themes/astra/) and I suggest you select this for a quick to set up theme. Like GeneratePress, it also comes as a free and premium version. One small advantage this offers over GeneratePress, beyond prettiness, is the free version allows you to style six levels of heading, whereas GeneratePress’ free version lets you style just three levels of headings.
More recently I’ve also been using Blocksy (https://wordpress.org/themes/blocksy/) from Creative Themes.
This offers a much wider set of customization options that you can select from in the Customizer. You can set the appearance of just about every aspect of your site, including the layout and style of the header, footer and sidebars.
You should perhaps allow yourself a few hours to work through all the options, but you can make things simpler by leaving many controls set to their default settings.
So far the theme has been intelligently conceived, so while there’s a lot of flexibility in its configuration, it doesn’t include silly and superfluous features that offer no real benefit to site owners.
After activating Blocksy, you’ll see a notification to install Download Blocksy Companion. This is a free plugin that adds some extensions, including a cookie consent notice, a MailChimp subscribe form and a quick view option for WooCommerce products.
After activation, you’ll need to go to the Extensions tab of the Blocksy screen to turn on any extensions you want to use.
Whichever of those themes you choose, remember that you’re not a designer (unless of course you are a designer), so don’t get caught up with focusing on making your site look like some perfect vision in your mind. Set aside a fixed amount of time that you are going to work on the appearance of your site and ensure you stick to it.
Whether you set a limit of one hour, one day or any other amount of time, once you hit the time limit leave the design as it is and move on. You can always tweak later, but for now, getting your content into your site will do more for your business than fretting over the font to use for your headlines or the color of your buttons.
I recall once getting a message from an acquaintance asking me to look at their new ecommerce site. I knew they had a very strong vision of how it should look and having seen the initial designs, the final site was quite a close fit to those layouts.
Sounds great so far, except that site took about three years to build and get launched. Not because it was particularly complex, but because they had a really strong vision of what it should look like and were fixated on building that.
I’ve got a video of me building an ecommerce site from scratch in under 33 minutes. That included adding a product and configuring taxes and shipping. Admittedly I was using an auto installer system I wrote, but I could still do it in an hour without the installer.
Obviously I’ve got a bit of experience, so I’m going to be quicker than someone who hasn’t done it before.
However, no-one needs three years to get their site built and you don’t need your site to match your vision right from the start. Particularly as chances are there won’t be many people looking at it for a while.
So just install Astra or Blocksy and use the WordPress Customizer to tweak what you can.
The content is the important thing. That’s why people will come to your site, so focus on being a writer, not a designer.
Though if you are a designer…
Elementor page builder plugin
Elementor (https://wordpress.org/plugins/elementor/) is a really powerful freemium page builder plugin for WordPress. Without needing to know any code, you can create elaborate and stylish pages.
I first used this plugin back when it launched and it’s currently actively installed on more than 3 million sites. It’s obviously pretty popular.
In the right hands, Elementor will produce stunning pages.
In the wrong hands, it will produce horrible pages that make a site look cheap and amateurish.
If you want more control and more features, you can pay for the Pro version. This lets you build your own theme which is a great feature for a designer, less good for non-designers.
For those whose budget doesn’t stretch to the Pro version of Elementor, it is still possible to use Elementor to build the header and footer of your site.
Elementor – Header, Footer & Blocks (https://wordpress.org/plugins/header-footer-elementor/) is a free plugin that extends Elementor by adding a new menu item under the Appearance menu. This lets you create multiple headers and footers that can be displayed on different pages and sections of your site. I advise you create just one of each, unless you have a good reason for using alternatively styled headers on different parts of your site.
Note that this is designed to work with specific themes, but fortunately Astra and GeneratePress are two themes that are compatible. In fact the plugin is created by the same developers as those behind the Astra theme.
IMPORTANT – clear your cache
Assuming you installed and activated a page caching plugin, it’s essential that you remember to clear the cache every time you make customization changes to your site. Most caching plugins will automatically purge the cache after a post or page is added or updated, but this usually doesn’t apply to changes to the site itself.
Try and get into the habit of checking your site in incognito or private browsing mode after you make any changes to it. That way you will always see the cached pages that your non-logged in users will see.
If you don’t purge the cache manually, then any changes that you make to your site won’t be visible to your users until your plugin automatically purges the cache.