Website Design, Strategy, Social Networking, SEO, Susan Pomeroy, Ph.D.

WordPress: Themes versus Theme Frameworks

by Susan Pomeroy

WordPress Theme Frameworks

If you’re a WordPress user, you’ve probably run into problems with a theme. Even premium (paid) themes can be super-difficult to customize. They can break when you update WordPress. They go out of visual fashion. Or, your business simply outgrows your theme’s design strictures or functional limitations.

When that happens, it’s easy to feel paralyzed about selecting the “perfect” theme, and then risking the same premature obsolescence all over again.

The right theme or theme framework is easy to update and customize. It has technical and visual longevity. It’s adaptable to your business as it grows. It gives you a powerful, flexible framework that adapts as your business grows and changes, and as web technologies evolve.

I don’t know of any single theme that can do this.

A theme framework, however, can. The WordPress Codex says:

A Theme framework is a Theme designed to be a flexible foundation for quicker WordPress development, usually serving as a robust Parent Theme for Child Themes. Some Theme frameworks can also make theme development more accessible, removing the need for programming or design knowledge with options pages.

Advantages of Theme Frameworks

In plain English, the best theme frameworks offer compelling advantages over most plain-vanilla themes. With a top theme framework,

  1. Many design and layout options can be controlled without the need to know programming or CSS.
  2. You’ll find amazing design flexibility. Unlike a single theme, where you’re stuck with the colors and layout the designer hard-coded into it, a theme framework is versatile and adaptable to many different potential site looks and layouts.
  3. User communities have created collections of styles and functions that can often be plugged into your site with little or no programming knowledge.
  4. You don’t need to worry about a WordPress update breaking your site. As WordPress evolves, the developers regularly update the framework too.
  5. It’s easy to optimize your site for SEO.

Thesis for WordPress

Thesis Theme for WordPress:  Options Galore and a Helpful Support CommunityAmong the theme frameworks I’ve tried, I’ve found two powerful standouts. The first is DIYThemes’ The Thesis Theme for WordPress, a premium (paid) theme framework (affiliate links throughout).

Thesis uses some innovative programming to make customizing colors and layout, adding functionality, and updating your site amazingly simple. I’ve found Thesis to be rock-solid, versatile, and easy to adapt to many different needs. The developers are continually working to add functionality.

Help is readily available if needed. Many bloggers and site owners use Thesis, so a simple search on any term or problem usually brings up several helpful answers or instruction sets. DIYThemes also has its own support forum, where experts help solve problems and offer helpful advice.

I think Thesis is unbeatable, and I use it for 80% of the sites I design.

[Note: the Thesis framework was updated in late 2012, and that update has several major shortcomings. While Thesis is still a powerful and viable theme framework, I no longer recommend it as a frequent “first and best choice.”]

Genesis by StudioPress

Genesis Framework is the other solid, widely used premium framework that I employ regularly. 

One of the wonderful things about Genesis Framework is that it’s easy to have more than one page template per website (You can do this in Thesis, but it requires considerably more coding acrobatics.) There are also special plugins developed specifically to enhance the function of Genesis.

Genesis too offers many styling options right out of the box. And, if that’s not enough, StudioPress sells a number of “child” themes which adapt the Genesis core to many different looks and purposes, with little additional work required.

Bottom Line—How to Choose

Both Thesis and Genesis are designed for fully functioning SEO. Both are solid, regularly updated, with good user communities, lots of developers, and plenty of help available. But how to choose, assuming you’re not a programmer?

In general, I advise starting with the more user-friendly Thesis. Chances are, you can find a way to make Thesis work for you without doing any coding at all (there are also many pre-designed “skins” available). If you end up needing to code, Thesis offers a much gentler, more user-friendly entrance into the worlds of CSS and custom functions than any other theme or theme framework around.

If you’d rather start with Genesis Framework, and you’re a non-coder, I advise you to browse the Genesis child themes. If you find one that looks exactly, and I do mean exactly, like what you want… buy it, along with the Genesis core.

If on the other hand you know some CSS and know that you’ll need to use multiple page layouts on your site, look for a Genesis child theme that’s a close approximation to what you want, and plan on spending a bit of time customizing the look.

In future articles, I’ll be going into more depth on both the Genesis and Thesis frameworks.

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