How to Select the Right WordPress Theme for Your Next Project

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WordPress has become t.h.e. content management platform of choice and accordingly, there are a dizzying array of themes out there, ready to dress up and update your website’s look and feel.

So, having made the obvious choice, the big question is; ” How do you find just the right theme for your website that will install hassle-free and meet all your needs?” If you go the out of box route (versus a custom design which is much pricier) there are hundreds if not thousands of choices, but your decision making process is relatively simple. All you need to do is: Know what you’re looking for; know where to look; know what to avoid; and do a bit of  background checking in order to make a qualified decision. Let’s look at each of these:

1. Know what you’re looking for

Ideally, you should have a list of desired features before checking out any single WordPress theme. Here are some examples of what this list might consist of:

  • Responsive layout
  • Content slider
  • Widgetized footer
  • A certain color scheme
  • Ability to disable sidebar in certain pages etc.

You could group features together, so you’d have essentials, optionals and nice to haves. This will make it easier for you to look for themes that have features you need and ignore the ones that don’t.

Going theme shopping without knowing what you’re looking for is like calling plays without checking the playbook. You might end up winning, but it’s not likely.

2. Where to Look for WordPress Themes

There’s three types of places to find themes: the themes directory, an established theme shop or a theme marketplace. Here are some pros and cons for each. Theme Directory

Pros: All themes are free and they go through a very thorough review process before becoming publicly available. Most popular themes are well supported and thanks to a rating system you can easily filter out the bad ones.

Cons: Support is not guaranteed. You might find the themes have fewer features than commercial ones, although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Check out Themes directory.

Theme Shops

Pros: A few Google searches can tell you what to expect from a theme shop. For more established ones, support is usually somewhere between great and legendary and their code is top-notch.

Cons: Not many. Some might tend to overdo things and throw in features that are best handled by plugins, others might require purchasing a license that allows you to use any of their themes when all you need is one. This is usually the most expensive of three options, but still much cheaper than custom design.

Some of the best known WordPress theme shops are: WooThemes, Elegant Themes, StudioPress etc.

Theme Marketplaces

Pros: You can find any sort of theme you need. Some marketplace theme authors are world-class WordPress developers and designers.

Cons: There’s a bit of a flea market feel to theme marketplaces. Easiest way for a theme to stand out is for it to list a ridiculously long list of features. More features equals more features you don’t need equals more things that could break, so beware.

ThemeForest is the most popular theme marketplace, by far. But before you pull the trigger, ask yourself if the main reason you’re buying a theme is that it has “600+ Google Fonts” or “8 different sliders to choose from”.

3. Know what to avoid

Before pulling the trigger and buying a theme, you need to know what a theme should and should not do. Allow me to use a quirky analogy to best illustrate what I mean.

Let’s picture a carpenter hard at work on a project, wearing his work coveralls and wielding his nail gun. As the project progresses, at some point his coveralls get so worn out that he needs new ones, well before his nail gun or the rest of his tools need replacing.

Now imagine if his tools were inexplicably designed to only function while the original coveralls are worn. So getting new coveralls means the carpenter needs to replace all his tools as well.

Still with me? Think of WordPress themes as clothes, WordPress plugins as tools. Beware of themes that have plug-in functionality built-in. A hammer should work regardless of which pants you’re wearing.

Never let your theme handle a feature you’d like to keep using after you replace the theme.

A good example here is a theme that has some sort of “SEO framework” built-in. AND, your title tags, meta descriptions, noindexes and what nots, all handled by the theme. You see, moving to another theme would mean losing all that.

Recently WooThemes, a premier WordPress theme shop, ditched their own SEO framework and advised their users to move to Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin instead. Anytime a programmer advises you to use someone else’s code, they have a very good reason for it.

4. Background check

The fact that WordPress themes are inexpensive doesn’t mean you don’t have to do some research. When was the last time you bought something online without reading some reviews first? Finding reviews for a theme or theme shop is literally one Google search away, so treat them the same way you’d treat a new TV.

If things go wrong and your site gets messed up because of a poorly chosen theme, it’s not just the theme you’ll be paying for. Most themes don’t come with a get out of jail free card, and you’ll probably need to hire a developer to clean up the mess. WP developers, in case you are unaware, get a bit more expensive than that LED TV mentioned about too.

I’d like to know what your experiences choosing a WordPress theme are. Do you always buy from the same author? If you have any positive or negative stories, please share them in comments.

Image credits: Titanas (WordPress badge), daily sunny (construction workers)

Slobodan Manic
A web developer with a passion for all things WordPress, he is also a co-founder of ThematoSoup, a themes and plug-ins development company, and a... Read Full Bio
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  • Dragan Nikolic

    Had a lot of fun looking at the second image and what a great way to compare tools to plugins and a workman’s suite to WordPress themes and yes “a hammer should work regardless of the pants you’re wearing”.

    How should one go about “most popular” vs. “the right” WordPress theme. I know StudioPress has themes that are very popular, but I’ve had such a difficult time customizing them.

    Congratulations on your first post here at SEJ, first of many I hope.

    • Slobodan Manic


      Thanks! “Most popular” vs “the right one” is actually the most difficult choice you need to make. I’ll just say that most popular restaurants don’t always serve the food that’s best for you. They could, of course, but don’t let popularity be the only factor when you’re picking a theme.

      If you know what you need, it’s much easier to find it.

  • steve

    what a great analysis! I especially like #3 analogy for tools.

    • Slobodan Manic


      Thanks for your comment, glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Jason Lancaster

    Please write me down as a critic of StudioPress as well, for the exact same reason Dragan Nikolic (above) listed: very hard to customize b/c of all the proprietary functions.

    I’m also a bit disappointed in the speed of these themes.

    The Theme Foundry is a favorite of mine, as developing off these themes is brutally simple, and the theme admin screens don’t try to do too much.

    As for Genesis, Thesis, etc. – who cares. A good WP theme shouldn’t try to be all things to all users. I think they’re overly complicated frameworks.

    • Slobodan Manic


      I didn’t want to say any of that stuff as a SEJ author. But as a WordPress developer and user I couldn’t agree more. Could even rant about it for a while, wouldn’t be first time I did it 🙂

      Thanks for commenting.

    • Dragan Nikolic

      Jason, I wanted to click “like” on your comment, but couldn’t find it.

      I guess most people don’t realize that the most important feature they should be looking for in a theme is “ best practices”. A lot of theme building workshops overwhelm people with features and options that are rarely/never needed.

      The way I see it, end-users can choose between starting with: 1. a light, unobtrusive theme (ex. Twenty Twelve) and working their way up with plugins and CSS or 2. installing Thesis or Genesis and working their way down, fixing bugs and hacking all the time.

      Thanks for recommending Theme Foundry. I’ll take a look at those guys.

  • Aj Singh

    a theme is definitely a critical part of a wordpress. When visitors see it for the first time, it could make or break the perception they have of you

  • Winithemes

    Theme marketplaces are great for tech savvy users who are looking for advanced design and functionality (like custom typography or a parallax slider). Theme shops are good for bloggers that want a basic customization for their blogs and WordPress directory is probably the best option for beginners, looking for a minimal visual and functional blog . We’ve got an interesting hierarchy indeed :))

  • Carl

    If you can afford to hire somebody to design and code one, then that would be the Goldilocks spot as you have total control of all the important factors mentioned in this article.

  • Hendrik

    I agree with the bullet list at the beginning of this post. You should know the main features of you ideal theme before drilling down on things like “how many google fonts” etc. I’ve set up to help you with a more feature-specific search for your wordpress theme.

    • Slobodan Manic


      Looks like an interesting project worth keeping an eye on. I’m sure users will find it helpful.