How to choose a good WordPress theme

Published on: Updated: March 26, 2018

Selection of clean modern responsive WordPress themes from 2014

Choosing the right WordPress theme is the single most important decision that you will make in designing your website.

Your choice of theme will literally make or break your WordPress website. The right theme will look fantastic, be easy to set up, work well on mobiles and tablets and form the basis of a robust and solid WordPress website that will least for years. The wrong theme will make it difficult to design a professional-looking website, be full of bugs that will annoy you and put off your visitors, make your website slow to load (which puts off visitors AND search engines) and is more likely to break when you update WordPress in future. That’s why choosing a good WordPress theme is so important.

WordPress theme or bespoke website design?

Your first decision is whether to design a WordPress website using an off-the-shelf theme or whether to go bespoke.

Some people spend days agonising over this decision, but I think it’s pretty simple. As yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have very specific requirements for the design of your WordPress website? For example, do you have a very specific brand or fixed ideas about how your website must look?
  • Do you have a fairly limited budget? All WordPress web designers and developers charge different amounts and you can get a bespoke designed website for a few hundred pounds. However, to get a professional and well coded bespoke WordPress website will cost at least £3,000 from a good WordPress agency (probably a lot more) – whereas a theme-based website can cost less than half as much. Only go for a custom design if you can afford it and won’t have to cut too many corners.
  • Will your website be particularly complex? If you require a lot of advanced functionality then it’s often better to build from the ground up. This keeps your website as lightweight as possible with no bloat, which is particularly important in complex websites.

If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these questions then you should seriously consider a bespoke WordPress website design. If not, then a theme may be a good option.

Choosing the right WordPress theme for your website design

These top tips will help you to choose a good WordPress theme to design your website.

Most themes are rubbish!

Start with the principle that most themes are bloated and badly coded under the covers. You’re looking for a WordPress theme that goes against this trend. This immediately eliminates 99% of modern WordPress themes, so it’s not an easy task.

When looking at a WordPress theme, seek positive reasons that attest to the its quality – not just its design. Ideally, your choice of theme should be approved by an expert WordPress developer. It’s worth risking some money by purchasing a theme and asking a WordPress developer to quality-check the code. If it’s badly written and brittle then move on – it’s not the WordPress theme for you.

Look for the name

Themes from a well-established, reputable WordPress theme company are likely to be a safer bet than themes from unknown authors.

The simple fact that a theme has sold lots of copies (and by “lots”, I mean 1,000+) suggests that the theme author is making money from their WordPress themes. This is a sign that they’re likely to be around to support it for the foreseeable future.

Widely used WordPress themes will also be better tested. Even if the original developer was lazy in their testing, real users will have extensively tested the theme when using it to design their own WordPress websites. If the theme is updated regularly then the WordPress theme developer will have fixed the bugs reported by other users. By using a theme that has sold thousands of copies, you benefit from this.

When searching for the best WordPress themes on Google, you’ll find lots of roundups comparing different themes. These can be useful, but read them with caution. Look for clues that the reviewer has actually tested each theme, and isn’t just linking to them to get affiliate commission! A good example is Design Bomb’s ‘30 Newsworthy Magazine WordPress Themes for Blogs & Magazines‘, which goes into more detail than a lot of theme roundups.

Consider the attention to detail

Look closely at the WordPress theme demo site and the attention to detail in the design.

Are there any errors? Even typos or bad English – although not directly relevant to the quality of a WordPress theme – are a warning sign. A non-English speaking theme developer is no excuse as if they’re not fluent in English then they should get their theme demo properly proof-read. Errors like this suggest that there will be other, more important, issues with the theme – such as bugs and poor testing.

Is the spacing effective and consistent throughout the theme demo site? Does each page have good vertical rhythm, or are the gaps different sizes as you browse through the site? If the theme demo site is failing in these areas then it will probably be difficult for you to use this WordPress theme to design a professional-looking website with good attention to detail. The best themes should get these things right by default.

Does the theme use good fonts and effective typography? Lots of WordPress themes let you choose the fonts, however I believe that typography is an integral part of any website design. If you’re not a designer then choose a WordPress theme with suitable fonts, and use the same fonts as the theme demo site. Changing important design details such as fonts will often cause the overall design of your website to fall apart, making it hard to design a WordPress website that looks as good as the theme demo site.

Choose a WordPress theme with suitable layouts – but not necessarily unlimited layouts

Does the WordPress theme have the page layouts you need, or can it be used to design flexible layouts?

These days, all the ‘big’ ThemeForest-style themes have fully flexible layouts. This means that they allow you to design your own web page layouts, either via a template builder (e.g. a drag and drop page builder such as the popular Visual Composer plugin) or by building each page using shortcodes. This is great, but bear in mind that features you don’t need will add bulk to your WordPress website and can slow down page load times. The important thing is that the WordPress theme provides the layouts you need to present your content in a professional way – not that you can create every layout under the sun.

If the theme doesn’t let you create your own layouts, look at the WordPress theme demo site and check which layouts are available. You might be surprised at how much you can achieve using the built-in layouts and shortcodes.

Ratings and customer reviews – important but not infallible

Some theme marketplaces (e.g. WordPress themes) publish ratings for each WordPress theme. These can be a useful guide to a theme’s quality, but I advise viewing these with caution.

Ratings are often left by people who aren’t WordPress designers or developers, and can’t comment on the quality of the theme’s code. They might give a WordPress theme a high rating based on its design and number of features, unaware of the brittle code and poor performance behind the scenes.

Conversely, a well-coded theme may receive indifferent or negative ratings due to a lack of features. In theory, WordPress themes should be rated according to their quality rather than their features (which, after all, you can see for yourself simply by viewing the theme demo site). However sadly, ratings can be based on anything. I have even seen reviews left by people saying “Looks great, I love the demo site!” who haven’t even used the theme to design a WordPress website!

As a result, the other factors on this list are better indicators in choosing a good WordPress theme for your website.

Choose a WordPress theme that will look good with your content

Most WordPress theme demo sites look fantastic. A huge amount of work has gone into presenting the theme in the best possible way.

When choosing a WordPress theme, it’s important to consider whether it will look this good with your content. I’ve seen dozens of WordPress websites that are a pale imitation of the theme demo site they’re based on. This is often because the website’s actual content is less effective than the content used in the theme demo – or because the content is unsuitable for the theme it’s being used with.

These tips will help you consider whether a WordPress theme will work with your content.

Using images in a WordPress theme website

Images can make or break a WordPress website – indeed any website. Look at the style of images used on the demo site of each WordPress theme you’re considering. Will you be using similar images on your website? If not, will your images work just as well with the theme, or will they clash with the overall style of the design?

Lots of WordPress theme demo websites look great largely due to the full-width images that fill the whole screen. Do you have images that can be used in this way? If not, your WordPress website may end up with a less modern and more boxy look than the theme demo site.

If a WordPress theme demo uses a particular style of images, for example black and white photography, diagrams or cartoon-style graphics then think about whether you will be using this sort of imagery. Your website may become less effective if your images are a completely different style from the theme demo, as those images were chosen for a reason – for example if the colours on the theme demo are muted whereas you use bright coloured images.

Of course, WordPress themes require you to add your own images – that’s the point of a content managed website. However images are an integral part of a website design and work in harmony with the overall design along with the typography, colours etc. Choose a WordPress theme where the demo site uses similar images to the ones that you are planning to use for your website, and this will help you to choose a suitable theme.

(Tip – most modern themes use free images from popular websites which are licensed for commercial use. See my guide on free images for your WordPress website. This tells you how to source images just like the ones used in theme demos.)

Website text

Most WordPress websites designed using a theme fall down because they have a lot more text than the theme demo site. WordPress theme demo sites actually have very little text – the content is broken up using different styles and formatting options, creating the visual layouts that inspire us to buy the theme. Yet people purchase these WordPress themes and add long pages of unformatted text – then wonder why their website isn’t as good as the theme demo site.

Look for a WordPress theme where the text is presented in a similar way to what you are planning. Does the theme demo have any pages with longer pages of text? If so, how are they presented? I have used a lot of VERY popular WordPress themes that have put a lot of time into adding advanced formatting options, but have forgotten to style normal pages of text. Some themes don’t even add basic measures such as extra spacing between paragraphs and after bullet lists. (Tip: Single blog posts on theme demo sites are likely to have more text than the pages, so check how the text is formatted in these.)

In most web design projects, your content should come first and the theme should be chosen to suit your content. This doesn’t fully apply when designing a WordPress website using a theme. It’s sometimes a good idea to write text to fit the layouts provided in the theme, instead of the other way round.

For example if the theme provides some nice-looking icon boxes with 4 lines of text underneath, then you can write some text to fit this space. Even if you were planning to add a bullet list or paragraph of text, consider whether this format would work for you as it will allow you to create a more visual layout.

Try to write the same amount of text as on the theme demo site. For example an icon box with 4 lines of text under each icon will look much more effective than 2 or 6 lines. Worse, make sure the text under each icon has the same number of rows underneath – I’ve seen so many websites where this is overlooked and it’s such a shame.

Choosing a WordPress theme to design your website

These are the details that make the theme demo site look so good. Consider what makes the demo site effective and whether you can pull this off in your own WordPress website design.

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