Last Updated on October 5, 2021
One of the biggest benefits of using WordPress as the basis of your website is the vast number of different themes that are available. Estimates suggest there are now more than 30,000 WordPress themes available, which can make choosing the right one for you a tricky job.
Your choice of theme is important as it will determine how your site looks to visitors. In principle you can change your theme at any time however in practice this can be a lot of work, particularly once the site is established. Thus it’s important to spend time getting the choice of theme right at the start and to try and keep the number of theme changes to a minimum.
So what are the things you need to consider when selecting your theme? In this blog post we’ll start by explaining what a theme is and what it does, before going on discuss the key things you need to consider when deciding which theme is right for you.
What is a WordPress theme?
A theme is a collection of templates and stylesheets that determine the look and feel of your website. Your theme is what controls how your site looks on the frontend (i.e. what visitors to the site will see). It takes the content that you have created and displays it in the visitor’s browser.
As a general rule, your theme does not control the functionality of your site. Rather, it’s job is to control how the site is laid out and looks – for example, does it have a sidebar? How many menus does it have? Can the content be laid out in columns? Functionality – what your site can do – is controlled by the plugins you have installed (some of which may come with your theme).
This separation of functionality and design means that in principle you should be able to change your theme (make your site look different) without losing any of your functionality (what your site can do).
Should you go for a free or paid WordPress theme?
The first thing most people consider is whether to use a free theme or to pay for one. There are around 5,000 free themes available in the official WordPress theme repository. You can install any of these from the backend of your WordPress site and get up and running quickly and cheaply. If budgets are tight then a free theme can be a good way of getting started. Indeed, if your requirements are relatively simple then a free theme can provide everything that you need.
However free themes may have limited customisation options so if your requirements are more complex then you may find that a free theme does not give you everything you need. Another disadvantage of free themes is that they may not offer any support, or support will be very limited, meaning that if you get into trouble or can’t work out how to do something then you may be on your own when it comes to sorting it out.
Another option is to buy a theme from a theme developer such as Theme Forest or Elegant Themes. Costs vary but tend to average around £50-100. Commonly, paid themes operate on a subscription model meaning that the cost is yearly rather than a one off. If you don’t pay the annual renewal fee then your website won’t stop working but you will no longer be entitled to support and you won’t get any theme updates as they come out. Over time this can lead to problems as your site may no longer be compatible with more modern plugins, and not running the latest version of a theme can also be a security risk.
On the plus side, once you have paid for a theme then you’re generally entitled to a much higher level of support than you would get for a free theme, and you can also expect that the theme will have a greater level of functionality than a free one would.
It’s quite common for theme developers to operation on a ‘freemium’ model whereby they offer a free version of the theme that includes core functionality and a paid version that offers more options. For example, the free version might only allow you to have one menu on your site whereas the upgraded version offers more menu locations. Once you have installed the free version of a theme you can generally upgrade to the paid version at any time, once you’ve decided whether you need the additional options.
Should your theme be ‘off the peg’ or bespoke?
It’s also possible to get a developer to write a theme for you (or to write it yourself) which is specifically designed for your particular website. This option is obviously very significantly more expensive than opting for even the most expensive off the peg theme, with costs likely to run to several thousand pounds at a minimum. The benefit here is that you (should) get something that is designed to do exactly what you need it to do.
However the development process can be complex and the onus is on you to think of everything you need at the start of the project as making changes to the theme once your site is launched can be complicated and expensive as you’ll generally need to go back to the developer. This can also leave you in a situation where you’re dependent on a developer whenever you want to make changes to the look and feel of your site. Off the peg themes now offer a very high level of customisation and are generally suitable for all but the most complex projects.
There is a middle ground option here which is to develop a child theme. A child theme provides a way for a developer to create a new design but which is built upon the functionality and styling of the original, so-called parent theme. Using a child theme enables you to customise the parent theme without actually touching the core files that make up that theme. This means that if the theme needs to be updated it can be, without you losing any customisation that you have made.
Should you go for a bare bones theme or one that’s heavily designed?
In our experience themes, once installed, tend to fall into one of two categories: those that look amazing as soon as you install them, and those that require you to do more work setting them up before they look good. It can be very tempting to go for a heavily designed theme that looks amazing straight away. This can get your website up and running very quickly and can be a great option if speed is of the essence and you’re happy to go with the design choices that the theme imposes on you.
Themes that require more work up front can be more daunting. You may look at the theme examples on the developer’s website, expecting your site to look like them straight away, and then wonder why what you see on your own site once you’ve installed the theme looks nothing like that.
These kinds of theme require more work up front to get your site looking the way you want. However the payoff here is that they tend to offer much higher levels of customisation than more heavily designed themes. They are deliberately designed to give you flexibility which is exactly why your site won’t immediately look amazing, because you need to take the time to set it up to look how you want it to. If you go for a more heavily designed theme then you either need to be prepared to live with elements of it that don’t quite do what you want them to do, or you’ll need to learn how to add your own custom CSS or even dig into the theme code itself, which can quickly start to be more trouble than it is worth.
Should your theme be industry-specific or generic?
As you research theme options you’ll see that there are many themes designed for businesses in particular markets – consultants, photographers, retailers, personal trainers, restaurants and so on – whereas others are very generic and can be applied to any business. It may be worth considering themes that are specific to your market as they are likely to include the types of page layouts that you need. For example, a theme designed for restaurants will include options for displaying menus, a photography theme will include image display layouts, a retail theme will come with an ecommerce plugin such as WooCommerce already installed.
However, the disadvantage of these options is that you can sometimes end up with a site that looks very similar to lots of other sites in your market segment. You may also find, as discussed already, that the heavily designed nature of these themes makes them difficult to customise as much as you might like. If you opt for a more generic theme then you will still be able to add the extra functionality that you need by installing a menu formatting plugin, or a photography layout plugin, and so on.
Does your theme have the features that you want?
That said, it is important to make sure that whatever theme you choose does have the core functionality that you know you are going to need. If you want to be able to sell via your website then you need to ensure that your theme is compatible with ecommerce solutions such as WooCommerce. If you know that you want to have a particular design element on your site then you might want to check that the theme you’re choosing includes that element. For example, lots of themes these days don’t include options for sidebars so if you know that you’re definitely going to want a sidebar on your site then you need to take that into account when considering theme options.
Does your theme use a page builder?
Some very widely used themes come with page builders built in, offering you a drag and drop interface that can be appealing if you’re not used to working with the WordPress backend. You may also find that your hosting company installs a page builder along with your WordPress installation. Such page builders can be very appealing as they offer you a simple ‘what you see is what you get’ interface with easy to use drag and drop functionality.
The disadvantage of this is that once you have built a page using a page builder it can be virtually impossible to get the content cleanly out of that page builder if you ever wanted to change the theme. The page builder adds a lot of its own code behind the scenes which means that there is no easy way of reverting to a ‘clean’ version of the page using the standard WordPress editor or importing the content into a different theme. For this reason you should think very carefully before starting down the road of using a page builder as there is no easy way back.
Although page builders can be appealing to inexperienced developers, they stop you from really getting to grips with understanding how your site works ‘under the hood’ and this can be a problem as you want to be able to do more and more with your site over time. These days WordPress’s own Gutenberg page editor offers a fairly high degree of ‘drag and drop’ functionality itself, with the added benefit of still being able to easily move your content from one theme to another. We would say that it’s almost always better to spend time learning how to use the Gutenberg editor properly rather than to use a page builder.
Is the theme widely used?
There’s a benefit to using a theme that’s fairly widely used rather than one that’s little known. Widely used themes will have a greater infrastructure of additional plugins and customisation options to extend their functionality, and there will also be more developers who know how to work with them. Additionally, a widely used theme is likely to be more robust and less prone to bugs or security issues than one that’s less commonly installed. Simply Googling ‘most popular WordPress themes’ will immediately tell you which the most popular themes are.
What themes do other sites that you like use?
A good starting point can be to take a look at sites that you like and see what theme they are using (assuming that they are WordPress sites). A site such as What WordPress Theme is That will tell you which theme any WordPress site is using. We use Astra theme for our own website and in our training sessions as it’s a widely used and extremely adaptable theme that’s suitable for almost every website application.