WordPress Themes with Purpose
The first thing you think about when you’re starting a new WordPress project. The importance of this choice will have repercussions for as long as you own your website. Decisions are often made by users who see an amazing demo site, but don’t ask the important questions like – “Do I have images that look this nice?”, “Do I need all of the sections that I’m seeing?”, or “Is this theme optimized?”
This post takes a look at theme options from all of the angles. We hope to cover all of the questions that you should be asking yourself and highlight some best-in-class options for the variety of theme types. We’ve broken the themes into four major categories – All purpose themes, themes organized by goal, themes organized by industry, and the people making themes.
Please note that inclusion on this list does not constitute an endorsement for a specific theme or approach. Each project is unique and one theme does not fit all. We’ve tried to remove themes that have questionable code, but updates and abandonments happen all of the time so – caveat emptor.
Parents and Children – All in the Family
Before we dive into the specific theme types, a quick diversion to discuss parent themes and child themes is needed. When you choose a theme for your WordPress site and activate it you’re effectively setting it as your parent theme. As long as you don’t edit any of the theme specific files you can update this theme. However, once you make a change to your parent theme files (typically a CSS change or addition to your functions.php file, though many other alterations are possible) those changes will be lost with an update.
Updates are VERY important and often contain security fixes. This is where child themes come in. A child theme references most of the parent theme’s files and creates a safe place for you to make any customizations that you need to make. It insulates you from the destructiveness of an update. However, this is not a foolproof process, updates should always be made on a staging site before being put into production. In addition, some of the theme types we’re about to discuss don’t play well with the parent/child structure. For more information about child themes or how to set them up, check out the WordPress Codex Child Themes page.
Now, onto the themes.
All Purpose WordPress themes
All purpose themes are designed to be the basis for your WordPress site. They are intended to be infinitely flexible and handle the array of industries or activities that exist. As a development shop, we often make use of themes in this category as a basis for many of our projects. We include the following types of themes in our definition of “All Purpose Themes”: lightweight starter themes, developer-oriented theme frameworks, and page builder themes.
These ironically named themes are not at all for beginners. A starter is the bare bones of the structure you’ll need to build out a fully functional theme. The advantage of a starter theme is that it’s lightweight and allows you to focus on the specific needs of the project at hand. A lot of agencies take a starter theme and add the components that they like to use on all of their projects. The child theme ideology doesn’t make sense for starter themes since you’ll never be updating a starter theme from its originating source. Since there is a lot more structure to be built, adding all of your customization to a child theme doesn’t make sense as an update to a starter theme means a structural change. I like to think of them as the blueprints for a theme.
There is a lot of overlap and sometimes argument about when a theme crosses over to a framework. Usually it’s the addition of more structure and templates, and the associated need for a parent/child relationship to make additional customizations.
This starter theme from ThemeKraft combines another starter theme, Underscores, with Bootstrap 3. The merging of these two in a clean and minimalistic way makes this a great starter.
The Bones theme is mobile-first, responsive, and built with HTML5 standards.
FoundationPress is built on Foundation 6 and gives a semantic, responsive, and exceedingly customizable experience for users.
The HTML5Blank starter theme says it all. It’s built with HTML5 and it’s a blank slate to start your build.
The JointsWP starter theme is another combination using Foundation 6, available in both a CSS version and a Sass version for development.
From Roots, Sage provides a WordPress starter theme that really leverages DRY principles (don’t repeat yourself) and modern PHP to build your theme.
The “_s” theme is an Automattic project (the same folks who build WordPress.com). It’s built to be a light, well commented starting point for building your next theme. Underscores is often used as a resource in other starter themes.
Understrap combines the simplicity and elegance of Underscores with the structure of Bootstrap. Unlike _tk, Understrap is using Bootstrap 4.
Theme frameworks typically offer a little more detail and structure to the theme mix. Unlike starter themes a theme framework is a great candidate for a child theme to make the smartest use of it. There is some debate on what constitutes a theme framework. We’re using the commonly accepted description which is a developer focused theme that makes great use if actions and filters to modify their functionality.
Beans is a framework that is light, fast, responsive, and free.
Genesis is a very popular theme framework from StudioPress. The Genesis theme serves as a blank slate for the wide selection of child themes available from StudioPress (and third party developers). There is great tool built for Genesis, Design Palette Pro, that allows you to customize your child themes even further.
The Thematic theme framework offers great SEO optimizations. The theme has wonderful support for child themes and extra widget areas built in.
Ultimatum is a theme framework based around a drag and drop layout builder and an extendible framework.
These themes offer a unique experience. Page builders provide a set of tools with which you can completely customize your WordPress theme. A child theme is recommended with a page builder theme if you’re making any code-level customizations, but be sure to check the theme’s documentation to make sure it supports child themes.
Beaver Builder is an amazing builder plugin. The plugin offers front end editing and modular construction so you can create intricate layouts on your pages and reuse sections by saving out modules or layouts. With the Beaver Themer add-on, you can apply the same detailed construction to your themes.
Elegant Themes’ Divi has become a strong presence in the page builder space. Early criticism has given way to a strong theme with an active community behind it. With the release of Divi 3, front end editing is a reality.
This plugin allows you to make customizations with a front end editor to any theme. Once Elementor is active you can edit your pages and even change themes. While not technically a theme, Elementor gives you amazing control over the appearance of the site.
The Make theme has leveraged the WordPress customizer and an admin facing layout builder to allow you to create the exact page that you’re looking for.
Themify is a drag and drop builder that is built into every Themify theme. The Themify plugin can also be purchased separately to be used with almost any WordPress theme.
WordPress Themes Organized by Goal
In this section, we’re going to be looking at themes with a specific purpose. As opposed to the previous categories where the theme was goal-agnostic, these themes were designed to help you reach a specific audience. This can be something very general like setting up a store, or a blog, or something more specific like a theme built for leveraging BuddyPress, or to present a one page website. We’ve purposely set these apart from themes that are industry specific to make browsing the guide a little easier. These themes generally offer a set of functions that make them suited for the task at hand.
The key to a good blogging theme is, of course, a focus on posts. In most cases a good blog theme will feature the posts on the home page and may include a lot of structure that supports the posts – featured posts, category lists, and extended author blocks. Another prominent feature of a blogging theme is space for advertising blocks. Passive income for the win!
Some blogging themes:
While this may seem like a specific industry. Business is more of a general category. This could be anything from a technical business, to an agency, or even financial advisors. The keys to a good business theme are a focus on brand, on features, and on communicating with the website owner. That being said, these themes are represented with “businessy” names and business themed photography so make sure that the theme is covering the needs of your business.
Some business themes:
These are themes optimized for selling products online. A good ecommerce theme should have a focus on products, a great catalog or shop page, and a great product page. In addition, many of the best ecommerce themes have additional styles available to tie into the major shopping carts available for WordPress.
Some ecommerce themes:
A good portfolio needs to focus the attention on the portfolio items. This is typically handled with a custom post type that presents the featured work in the best light. Aside from that, sharing the taxonomy for the custom post type and branding are areas for secondary emphasis.
Some portfolio themes:
With a good directory theme the focus is on the directory listings. This means two specific things. First, the directory archive needs to give the user a great way to browse or search for what they need. Second, the detail page for the directory needs to be robust enough to present the information. Since a directory can be a list of many different things it’s often best for the theme to just get out of the way and for a plugin to power this functionality. Other considerations are integration with Google Maps and monetizing the directory.
Some directory themes:
Job Board themes
Very similar to a directory theme, a job board focuses specifically on the individual listing and the archive displaying those listings. With a job board, the specifics are different and depending on the theme that can make all the difference in the world.
Some job board themes:
A conference is all about scheduling events. These themes focus on the smaller events that make up the whole. Who’s talking when and where are the critical pieces of information. You may also need to handle registration, countdown clocks, featured speakers, and ticket sales.
Some conference themes:
One Page themes
One pages themes have to consider…well…everything. Since the goal with a theme like this is to contain all of the site’s content it needs to be flexible enough to adapt to a variety of needs. Usually this means a series of horizontal sections that can substitute for all of the typical website functions, contact, featured images, bio sections, photo galleries, etc. The best one page themes make a decision about what they’re going to cover and what they’re not.
Some one page themes:
BuddyPress is a plugin that adds social networking functionality to your WordPress site. As such, a focus on the social commenting is the core need. In addition, other social notes like reviews, sharing, and favoriting are key concerns.
Some BuddyPress themes:
With a good cooking theme the focus should be on recipes and how to present them to the visitor. This may include unique ways of handling ingredients, grouping recipes into logical (and easily searched) sections, and a focus on great photography. A lot of what makes a cooking theme special may be leveraged for an exceptional restaurant them, but a cooking theme often has the how-to component.
Some cooking themes:
WordPress Themes for Specific Industries
Similar to our last section, themes for a specific industry are those themes that are best suited for users who have a specific vocation. The similarity in need is going to dictate some of the features that these themes should have in common.
There are a few different types of automotive themes. Most of them are focused on auto repair of some type. However, themes for car dealerships or pricing comparisons are also a strong component as well as sites that might be selling individual parts for do-it-yourself repairs. Try to narrow down what you’re looking for and you’ll find a theme that meets your needs. The ability to list a large number of parts or even a whole car may be needed for these themes. Searchability and a variety of taxonomies are most likely key features.
Some automotive themes:
A beauty theme can run the gamut from a spa or salon, to a cosmetics company, through a hair stylist or barber. In most cases a focus on strong visuals is key to the theme as the focus on beauty almost demands to be seen. Service descriptions and possible ecommerce functionality may be needed for the theme as well.
Some beauty themes:
Church themes have several needs. First, they usually need to communicate the schedule of events that are happening at the church. Next, they have to display a lot of past service archives which may be text, images, and/or video. There may also be congregation information. Finally, there may be a fundraising or donation aspect to the theme.
Some church themes:
Education themes are often built to work with a specific LMS (learning management system). There is a lot of specific details that have to be displayed in an easy to search way – classes, curriculum, and instructors. In addition, multiple media types have to be handled with equal ease – audio, video, text , and images all have to be easily added to classes.
Some education themes:
Fitness themes can focus on a specific gym or training facility, a specific trainer, or even a type of exercise. Functionality needs are centered around the staff, the exercise, and the facility details. In addition, ecommerce can big a big component of a fitness theme.
Some fitness themes:
Hotel themes are obviously focused on a hotel. Specifically, a good hotel theme features the amenities of the hotel, the different room types, and ideally offers the user a way to reserve (and possibly pay for) a room. As we’ve mentioned a few times, it’s usually best not to tie to much functionality into the theme directly, but you do want to have templates that support these features.
Some hotel themes:
With a legal theme the functional requirements are minimal. Usually, the key to a good legal theme is the structured presentation of information as opposed to needing a specific custom post type or a complicated page design.
Some legal themes:
Medical themes may focus on a specific practice, a medical device, or a treatment routine. The keys here are focusing on relevant contact information and staff details. You may want to have the ability to make appointments and to describe specific procedures in an approachable way.
Another key focus is on complex descriptions of devices and presenting that information as clearly as possible.
Some medical themes:
A music theme needs to focus on the music. This usually starts with a good spotlight on the band. You may also want to include albums or specific tracks that you want to feature and that should include the ability to showcase sound files so visitors can hear as well as see. In addition, shows and tour information need to be highlighted in a creative way.
Some music themes:
A non-profit business can perform a huge gamut of business functions. Almost any other profession could be a non-profit. They key to a strong non-profit theme then becomes more about the flexibility and how the information is displayed than too much of a focus on functional needs. Items like the mission statement and the ability to accept a donation are crucial.
Some non-profit themes:
A good photography theme focuses on…wait for it…the photography. You need to have a great gallery feature and the use of imagery overall needs to be considered throughout. Aside from that good contact information placement is critical.
Some photography themes:
Real Estate themes
The goal of a real estate theme is to showcase the properties that are up for sale. A key feature for these sites is a connection to the local MLS (or other home listing services) so that centralized information can be seen. More sophisticated themes will also feature the property details with a great gallery feature. In addition, the agents should have a strong bio section.
Some real estate themes:
It’s all about the food for a restaurant theme. The menu should have a lot of attention and photographs of the food should be a prime consideration. Other key features are the ability to make reservations, easy to find directions and maps, and hours of operation.
Some Restaurant themes:
Travel Agency themes
A travel agency is all about the trip. A travel agency theme needs to showcase these vacations in a way that makes them irresistible to the traveler. You’ll want to see the location, understand the pricing, travel dates, and accommodations.
Some travel agency themes:
Wedding themes have a strong focus on the visual. Photography, dresses, cakes, centerpieces; all of these need to be seen. Key features can include, RSVPs, bridal registry info, some have vendor directories, and all of them need to show wonderful photography.
Some wedding themes:
People Making (or Selling) WordPress Themes
Here’s an alphabetical list of people making and selling WordPress themes. While we’ve tried to be comprehensive, there are thousands of WordPress user making new themes all the time. If you see a foundry that you like is missing, let us know in the comments below.
- Aesop Story Engine
- Anders Norén
- App Themes
- Beaver Builder
- Chimp Group
- Church Themes
- Cobalt Apps
- Compete Themes
- Creative Market
- CSS Igniter
- Design Palette Pro
- DIY Themes
- Easy Digitial Downloads
- Elegant Themes
- Engine Themes
- Gorilla Themes
- Graph Paper Press
- Headway Themes
- Hermes Themes
- Ink Themes
- Macho Themes
- Match Themes
- MOJO Marketplace
- Modern Themes
- Obox themes
- Organic Themes
- Pixel Union
- Pro Theme Design
- Pure Themes
- Qode Themes
- Satori Studio
- Show Themes
- SKT Themes
- Template Monster
- Tesla Themes
- Theme Beans
- Theme Forest
- Theme Foundry
- Theme Fuse
- Theme Hybrid
- Theme Works
- The Molitor
- Up Themes
- Web Savvy Marketing
If you find yourself in need of some custom theme development or advice on a theme for your project, please reach out.
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