Your new business is ready to hang its snappy digital shingle. Or, your organization needs to refresh its aging website in order to meet the needs of a growing mobile audience.
So, where do you start?
Since you’re reading this, your new or updated website will probably run on WordPress. That’s a pretty safe bet since 29% of all the web sites on the Internet run WordPress.
WordPress is easy enough to use for Ole’ Joe’s Bait ‘n’ Tackle, yet powerful enough to serve the needs of Fortune 500 companies. What’s more, the enormous WordPress developer community means you have lots of options available to you, whether you’re looking to extend the functionality of your website with a Plugin or build a fully custom website.
What, exactly, is a theme?
I suppose we should start by talking about what a “theme” does.
The overall look of a WordPress site is determined by its theme.
Themes control the layout of pages, the typography and color styling, and the structure of menus and navigation. They work by providing template files and other elements which override the default versions built into WordPress.
In short, if done well, they elicit oooohs and aaaaahs.
Meanwhile, Plugins usually focus on a specific function or feature, like slideshows for example. They allow you to add or replace specific features in any well-constructed theme.
Almost any aspect of WordPress can be customized with a theme or plugin.
Already, the landscape grows murky because many themes include features that could be plugins. (Not to mention that some commercial themes actually include third-party plugins.)
How do I find a theme?
With tens of thousands of WordPress themes available, the options are mind-boggling.
Broadly, we can divide the WordPress theme universe into “paid” and “free,” just like the apps for your phone.
Paid-for products aren’t necessarily any better than the free ones; the primary difference will be support. A developer earning their living by selling themes has a very strong incentive to make their theme work for you, since a refund will hurt their bottom line.
But oddly, that’s also one of the problems with commercial themes: if it takes the developer more than a few hours to provide you with support, then it becomes a money-losing proposition and they may give up on the sale.
Okay, let’s get to it: The easiest way to find and install a theme…
The WordPress Themes Directory
Your WordPress site actually requires a theme to work. Luckily, WordPress comes with a few well-vetted themes pre-installed. These themes have names like “Twenty Thirteen,” and “Twenty Sixteen.” As you might guess, they are named after the year in which they were released. (Although all of them are updated regularly.)
Give these a shot. They were designed as good general-purpose themes.
By customizing the logo and colors, and perhaps by using a few plugins, you may be able to create the site you need without venturing out into the theme markets.
It’s a piece of cake to install themes from the WordPress Themes Directory. From your WordPress dashboard, you can simply go to Appearance>Themes and click the “Add New” button to start exploring.
All of the themes in the WordPress Themes Directory are licensed for free use.
- Easy to install and maintain
- Low risk – easy to switch to a different theme
- No guarantee of quality, although there is an excellent 5-star rating system
- Limited selection – a few thousand options
* A Word about “Free.” Unless you’re willing to use a free theme as-is, you will need some custom development.
If you decide that a built-in WordPress theme won’t deliver the site you want, here’s how you can find an appropriate theme and reduce your risk of time/budget blow-up…
This usually involves hiring someone to turn your vision into a custom WordPress theme.
- You control the design – getting exactly what you want
- You’ll have a totally unique design
- If you make a smart hiring decision, you’ll have quality, responsive support throughout the development process (although you may have to pay for ongoing support once the site goes live)
- You need to manage the development project
- It’s usually much more expensive than a commercial theme
- Now you need an article on “How to find a WordPress Theme Developer…”
There are tens of thousands of commercial WordPress themes out there. They’re offered for sale on a range of group marketplaces, as well as on individual developer websites.
(This is a popular option, and we’ll cover this topic more deeply in our next post.)
- Support – commercial, professional support
- Features – in order to add value, commercial themes are often loaded with features, often including commercial plugins.
- Selection – tens of thousands of themes across numerous marketplaces
- Curation – with all of the available options, it can be hard to determine what’s a solid choice (don’t worry – we’ll help you assess your WordPress theme choices in our next blog post)
- Support – if the developer stops maintaining the theme or doesn’t provide good support, you don’t really have anywhere to turn
Making it work for you
The most important consideration in designing your WordPress site is you.
Unless you’re hiring a web developer to put this together, you’re the one responsible for making it work.
So how are you going to do it?
Can you be flexible?
Are you willing to change your pre-conceived website ideas to fit someone else’s theme?
If so, you’re golden!
Assess the WordPress themes that pique your interest and get that best-fit installed. Then, enter your content and use the theme’s built-in customizer to set a logo and pick some colors.
Don’t try to get everything perfect the first time. Start simply and add features and elements as your site grows.
Do you have technical expertise?
Do you (or does someone in your organization) have the technical skills to create a WordPress theme?
Do you want to learn?
If so, you can customize an existing theme or build one from scratch.
If you have some php programming experience, you can use the WordPress Codex to learn how to build and customize themes. The Codex happens to be one of the more amazing documentation projects on the Internet.
Should you hire some help?
If you don’t have those technical skills and you’re looking for more than a font or color change, you’ll be paying someone to do it for you.
We won’t cover the “how” of selecting a web developer here. This is, after all, an article about selecting a theme. But here are some things to keep in mind.
You can’t judge scope
Only a developer really knows what’s easy and what’s difficult. Something that might appear trivial could actually be a large-scale project. Something that might seem nearly impossible could take two minutes.
Bring your ideas to the table and see if they fall within budget.
Spoiler alert: The phrase “like Facebook” will make your developer sigh unless your budget includes lots of zeroes.
It’s a project
And, that means someone has to manage it. Even if it’s a small project, someone needs to set expectations and timelines. The scope of the project needs to be clearly defined.
You can build your own house, but it’s a lot easier to hire a general contractor to manage the build.
Development is a process and a relationship
Your chosen developer should demonstrate a clear and logical process for collecting your ideas and producing a working site. And, you should enjoy working with your developer.
Since you probably don’t have the technical expertise to evaluate the work of your developer, you need to find someone you trust.
If you get a weird vibe, it’s OK to move on.
Personal referrals are going to be the best way to find a good developer. Ask around. Engage your social networks. Find someone you know who had a great personal experience. You may be surprised at who pops up.
Here’s a little-known secret: Often, the developer of a commercial theme is available to create customizations at a reasonable rate.
It never hurts to contact a theme author and ask – even for free themes.
Choosing your WordPress theme
Maybe you’ve decided a no-frills free WordPress theme is all you need. It could be a fully custom website is your best path forward. Or, perhaps a commercial WordPress theme will prove to be your happy middle.
Regardless, building your “digital storefront” is an exciting challenge, which, done well, can accelerate sales, build brand awareness, and position you as a thought leader in your industry.
So, no matter which route you choose, it pays to take a breath, take some time, and, by all means, reach out for help if you get stuck.
Are you planning to use a commercial WordPress theme? “Top 10” lists aren’t going to help you find a solid theme. So, hang on. We’ll give you the insider information you need to choose your theme wisely in “How to Choose a WordPress Theme That Won’t Break Your Budget—or Your Heart.”