Premium Theme, Free Theme, Child Theme or Custom WordPress theme?

Choosing a WordPress theme is hard. To complicate matters, choosing between a premium theme, free theme, child theme or building a custom theme can be daunting! It can also have a significant impact on your business.

What are your options for a WordPress theme?

When it comes to WordPress themes, generally you have 4 options. You can …

  1. Install a free theme 
  2. Buy a premium theme
  3. Modify a theme with a child theme
  4. Build a custom theme

Which one is right for your business totally depends.

Free or Premium themes

If you are trying to get your business website up and running for the first time you may not have the initial funds for a large scale project. In this case using a free theme or premium theme is a good option. Many themes allow you customize the appearance. You may be able to upload your logo and adjust the color scheme with WordPress customizer. If you’re just getting started in your business, getting your site up and the information out there is the most important thing.

Having a working website will also allow you to gather information and feedback on your content and the purpose of your site. As your business grows you can use the site as a sort of prototype for a more refined design and architecture. Using analytics and feedback you can see how visitors are engaging and use that data as leverage for designing a custom theme or even choosing a more appropriate theme that suites your needs.

Premium themes can range in price from $10 to more than $200. Keep in mind that just purchasing the theme is not the end of the story. If you are not experienced with WordPress you may find yourself getting super frustrated while trying to install and setup your theme to the point that you want to smash your computer! I’ve seen this over and over! Many people end up hiring someone to setup and change the theme how they would like. Don’t be discouraged when that person tells you that the theme is limited in what it can do either. A child theme may be a good option at this point.

Remember that free and premium themes are meant to be sold to the masses so a one size fits all is their approach. If this is not going to work for you consider using a child theme or build custom.

Child Themes

If you like a theme and the layout is close enough to what you need, using a child theme to modify the theme may be a good option. It is good to keep in mind that you should use this option to make some slight modifications. If your child theme modifications get too heavy you may end up spending more time and money modifying a theme when a custom theme would have been more appropriate. You shouldn’t really be using a theme to hijack or modify so heavily that it is completely different. This defeats the purpose of using a parent theme in the first place.

Custom Themes

Custom themes are built from the ground up. Many people, myself included, use some type of boilerplate or starting point to work off of. Some notable starter themes are Underscores and Sage. These starter themes, as they are called, are bare bones scaffolding on which to build any type of design layout or custom solution.

If you have a very specific design or layout that you would like to achieve a custom theme may be your best option. But where a custom theme becomes a necessity is where you need to couple a custom design and layout with very specific functionality. Perhaps you have several essential plugins that you are integrating and you need the user experience to be seamless with your theme.

If you are designing a web-app or custom front-end that is unique to your business you will probably need to build a custom theme especially if you are integrating with a third party service.

I have seen many clients spend so much money over time modifying a theme or building a child theme off of a parent theme that they could have used to build a custom theme.

Custom themes are tailored to your fit. If that is what you want, go custom.

Things to keep in mind about custom themes

Many custom themes do not come with documentation unless the designers and developers of that theme include documentation. In addition, every piece of software need maintenance, so talk to your developers about maintaining the theme they build for you.

After 6 months there may be some functions in the theme that could use updating. Perhaps a year later there are things they could do to speed up the theme with some front end optimization. This is important to keep in mind as nothing runs free and works perfectly by itself. Premium and free themes regularly ship updates out. Custom themes need maintenance too.

How do you know if you’re getting a good WordPress theme?

The thing about free and premium themes is that there are thousands of them! How are you to know if you are finding quality themes? You don’t know if the code is quality, all you can really see is the facade, the pretty demo, and the promises that it does everything under the sun.

In the WordPress community a quality WordPress theme follows the WordPress coding standards, and doesn’t pack in too much functionality that should belong in a plugin.

With WordPress, themes are for presentation and plugins are meant to bring extra functionality to your WordPress site. The reason for this designation is important. If you switch themes with tons of functionality baked into it, you may loose your content! Take the popular premium theme Divi for example. The theme is pretty impressive and amazing in and of itself, but if you set up your site with Divi, it better be forever.

Many page builders, custom shortcodes, sliders, and custom content types are built into themes. If you switch themes you will loose that content.

Use plugins for added functionality

You’d be better off with plugins to handle some of that functionality. There are many page builders, Velocity Pages, Conductor, and Beaver builder to name a few. If you need a specific layout these plugins will help you build a layout regardless of the theme.

There are hundreds of plugins which help you create forms, tabs, buttons, etc to your content. These DO NOT belong in themes. Sliders are the same way. If you need a slider check out Soliloquy.

Where can you find quality WordPress themes?

So where can you find themes that play nicely with WordPress and follow these standard procedures? Well, I’m sure there are more than I know of, but I do know of a couple of great resources I can share with you.

What I can tell you NOT to do is just go looking out into the wild world of premium WordPress themes on Themeforest or Template monster, find a theme you think looks “sexy” and use it. You have a 70% of having a major headache in the making!

Here are some resources that may help you out:

  • Array Themes – this theme shop is top notch and creates solid themes
  • The Theme Foundry – Solid themes, solid work!
  • Theme Friendly Theme Finder – a great resource for finding WordPress themes with scores determined on whether they are following WordPress best practices
  • WordPress theme Review – whether you have premium themes, or custom themes this service is meant to give a thorough review of the theme
  • StudioPress – Premium themes built on the Genesis framework, some people swear by it.

Things to keep in mind when talking to an agency, design shop or theme developer

Ok, so now you are armed with some resources and concepts to keep in mind when choosing a WordPress theme. These concepts can also help you when you approach someone for help in implementing a theme for your business.

Many agencies use premium themes for their clients and this is important to know this. They either modify the theme using a child theme or just configure the theme settings to suite your business. So be sure to ask if they are using a premium theme. Many themes require a license to receive updates. Some agencies have developer licenses which they renew every year. So if you stop receiving updates you’ll know why.

If an agency or theme designer is choosing a theme for you be sure to ask about following WordPress coding standards and best practices, ask where they got the theme from, and how they are handling the licenses. Being in the know about where your theme comes from will put you in a better position to make the right decision for your business.

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