“This ain’t a WordPress theme, it’s an arms race”

I originally published this post back in 2014, in the early days of the WordPress themes arms race. It makes even more interesting reading today, as the arms race has continued to accelerate. As a WordPress agency, it has now reached a stage where we have started sell premium WordPress plugins but wouldn’t consider launching a theme due to the huge demand for extra features and the support burden. This certainly applies to multipurpose themes, but there may still be potential for specific niche themes. However, everything in this article is even truer now than when I first wrote it. 

The world of WordPress themes has gone a little crazy.

In the race to develop the best theme, things have got out of control and themes are actually getting worse. Most modern WordPress themes are stuffed to the brim with every feature under the sun. They’ve become a nightmare to work with, are badly tested, break at the drop of a hat, and contain so much code that your website grinds to a halt.

The arms race

It truly is an arms race. WordPress theme authors are falling over one another in an attempt to build a best-selling theme.

Just look at the way they copy each other. If Avada introduces full-width parallax backgrounds then within a couple of weeks, hundreds of other themes have introduced an identical feature. If the X theme adds a new type of counter shortcode then it won’t be the only one for long.

It’s time to sit back and think about what people actually want in a theme, not just stuffing in more and more features for the sake of it.

Surely more features is a good thing in a WordPress theme?

I’m not a purist – I can’t stand WordPress themes that aren’t flexible. That’s where Justin Tadlock went wrong in his well-known ThemeForest Experiment a few years ago. Yes, he followed the right principles – but he went too far. As well as not being a great design, his theme lacked the features that most people view as essential. That’s why the experiment wasn’t a huge success, even though his heart was in the right place.

A good theme must adapt to many different types of website, and it’s essential that you can change important things like the colour scheme and layout.

Some examples

There are also certain features that most people need – as well as obvious things like a blog, most website owners need a slider for the homepage. They need an attractive portfolio or gallery, a contact page with map and contact form. And also some nice options for formatting your content, etc.

But I’ve never seen a WordPress website that needs 10 different blog layouts and 6 different portfolio layouts! Yeah yeah I know, it’s not that each person who buys a theme will use ALL its features. The point is that that they can choose which layout works best for them. In a way that’s fair enough, but too much choice makes everyone suffer.

Each person who buys a WordPress theme with 10 blog layouts will have to spend time deciding which one to use. They’re more likely to make a mistake than if there was just one layout. The website will have loads more code than if there was just one or two layouts. This adds bloat and slows down page load times. The theme becomes much harder to test in different browsers and scenarios. More bugs will appear and things will start breaking. Is it really worth ruining the theme for everyone? Especially given the tiny proportion of people who will actually use the more obscure features and layouts?

And there’s more…

There’s also the fact that most modern themes are – quite frankly – rubbish. Some of the more popular themes such as Avada are actually rather well coded, very well tested and have good support. Sadly, the same doesn’t apply to all the Avada-copycat themes. Wanting a piece of the action, many of these themes have been designed far too quickly by sub-standard developers, and released without proper testing.

Decisions, not options

Theme options panels are a great example of the craziness.

The trend was largely started by the U-Design WordPress theme, which was the best-seller a few years ago before Avada took over.

U-Design introduced a new concept into the WordPress theme market. It was the idea that a theme can be a framework that allows non-technical users to create any type of WordPress website. Instead of providing a fixed design that is either suitable for your website or not (in which case you wouldn’t buy that theme), U-Design wooed WordPress users with the promise of designing your own website. Just choose from the hundreds of theme options. Anyone can create something wonderful, without touching a line of code.

Except that this simply isn’t true…

Yes, extensive theme options panels give you detailed control over the design of your website. Right down to tiny details such as the choice of font, font colour, font size, background colour, layouts and much, much more. But having all these options does NOT make you a designer. Far from it!

I’ve lost count of the number of enquiries we’ve had from people who have fallen into this trap. They use themes like Avada, X or one of the many copycats to “design their own website”. Surprise surprise, the end result is a mess. It’s a far cry from the professional look of the theme demo site.

It’s much better to leave design in the hands of the designers. Choose a theme with a specific design that will work for your business. Trust the theme author to have made the right decisions about the design and features. Instead, focus your time on adding fantastic content.

The backlash

Thankfully, not everyone has joined the arms race. There’s a growing backlash. An increasing minority of WordPress theme developers are paring things back and simplifying.

Array are a good example. They produce modern-looking themes with nice flat designs and rock-solid code.

But there is a downside…

I always visit the Array website when I shortlist themes for a WordPress web design project. I WANT to use their themes as I know they’re good quality. The thing is, none of their themes have ever made it onto one of our shortlists: They’re just too simple.

Array’s sales pages don’t say anything about features or flexibility. I can only assume that the layouts have to be almost identical to the demo (unless you modify the theme, which isn’t in budget for web design projects). There don’t seem to be any shortcodes. This is a shame as most of the WordPress websites we design need a way of making content look more appealing.

Array’s themes are perfect for people who want a very simple website or straightforward blog. Perhaps this is their target market – fair enough. They would also be a good starting point for a developer to build on and add features to. However our projects don’t tend to fall into these categories.

There are hundreds of behemoth themes that favour world domination at the expense of your website. There are also some very simple themes that favour simplicity at the expense of flexibility. Most of the the people who I speak to want a happy medium between these extremes.

What do people actually want from a WordPress theme?

Here’s a radical idea. Why not develop WordPress themes with the user in mind? Instead of just focussing on sales or principles?

Let’s put the user at the forefront. What do they want in a WordPress theme? At Barn2 Media we can answer this question pretty well, as we’ve learned a lot from our WordPress web design clients.

First, let’s look at what features they ask for. (I’m focussing on clients who want a normal WordPress website for their business. Let’s ignore anything specific like WooCommerce or BuddyPress that would require a more specialist or bespoke theme).

What users demand from a theme

  • Clean, modern design – absolutely everyone uses these words at the moment.
  • Professional without being flashy or pretentious – interestingly, at the same time as WordPress theme authors are adding flashy CSS animations and parallax backgrounds, our clients are asking for simpler themes that don’t have these features! If they do choose a theme with a flashy animated demo, they like the design but want us to tone it down a bit!
  • Ability to match the colour scheme to their existing logo and brand.
  • Flexible layouts – no one likes themes that make you force your content into pre-defined layouts. The theme should adapt to your content and not the other way round.
  • Extra styling options for the content – some themes go over the top with this and provide shortcodes that hardly anyone needs such as stats counters. However most websites will benefit from more obvious shortcodes. For example, call to action boxes, buttons and toggles/accordions for breaking up longer pages.
  • Stylish slider for the homepage, and possibly other pages too.
  • A fairly normal-looking blog, with a clean design and flexible sizing for featured images, excerpt length, etc. Very few of our WordPress web design clients have specific requirements for the blog layout.
  • Some way to display a portfolio or image gallery – most people are flexible about the exact layout. What matters is that their portfolio or gallery looks eye-catching and professional.

What qualities make a good theme?

Based on the above, you could assume that more features are a good thing. But it gets more interesting when you look at the qualities that our WordPress clients look for in a theme:

  • Simple to use. Everyone wants this. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have tried and failed to set up their own WordPress website. They come to us after tearing their hair out trying to make the theme look like the demo. Most WordPress themes claim to be simple to use, but our clients tell us otherwise. Whether a theme uses shortcodes or a flashy template builder, people get stuck.
  • Fast to load. Speed and performance are more and more important to website owners, who know that it affects their SEO as well as keeping people on their site. A lot of people come to us asking why their website is running so slowly – and it’s nearly always because of a bloated, badly coded WordPress theme.
  • Robust and future-proof. More and more of our clients are realising that a bad theme is a false economy. They want to be able to trust that everything will continue working nicely together after an update.

It all sounds very reasonable to me, but how can we find a theme that delivers on these things?

A brighter future for WordPress themes

I think that most people want something in between the two extremes – themes that have the features and flexibility you need, but which aren’t overflowing with bugs and bloat.

There are surprisingly few WordPress themes that achieve the right balance. Finding the right theme is like looking for a needle in a haystack (or forest…?).

As a WordPress web design agency, we keep a list of WordPress theme authors who produce well coded, good quality themes that aren’t trying to take over the world. Here are some good examples to help you get started in finding a good WordPress theme.

  • If you’re looking for a WooCommerce theme, Design Bomb have published a good article titled ‘7 Top WooCommerce WordPress Themes on the Market + Why They’re Best‘.
  • Tommus R Rhodus – Probably my favourite WordPress theme author, this UK WordPress developer designed the Loom theme used on this website. He has a good selection of themes which are well coded and standards-based. There are fewer layouts and features than the big themes, however they have a good choice of shortcodes etc. and I think he gets the balance right.
  • CREATIV – A reputable WordPress theme company with nicely designed themes. They have a shortcodes plugin to add more styling features and their themes are fairly flexible as well as simple and well coded.
  • Codestag – Excellent designers and their themes are quite well-coded, although we have found some bugs in their themes. Their themes are fairly flexible without going over the top. They also provide a shortcodes plugin which you can use for extra options in styling your content.
  • ThemeZilla – Well-coded themes that are well optimised for speed and performance. When shortlisting themes for our WordPress web design clients, I often find that their themes are very specific and only really suitable for portfolio websites. However they have a couple of more generic themes such as Sparks and Blox.
  • StudioPress – Themes based on their popular Genesis Framework. A favourite with developers worldwide, Genesis uses clean code and is a sound basis for a WordPress website. Some of StudioPress’ newer features are quite attractive although not as well designed as the ones by the other theme companies on this list. (Ignore their older themes which look outdated and aren’t responsive.)

If you know any other theme authors that have the features and qualities we’re looking for, we’d love to add them to the list! Please add your comment below.