What is a WordPress theme and how do you choose one?

If you’re reading this post, you probably just started blogging on WordPress. Either that or you’re re-evaluating your current theme choice.

What is a WordPress theme?

Simply stated, a theme dictates the design and functionality of your website without changing the basic WordPress software.

A WordPress theme is your superhero clothing. Your WordPress Pages, Posts, Permalinks and other basic structural elements are the arms, torso and legs of your superhero. The theme is the cape, lariat, boots and gloves.

Depending upon your theme, your site could look like this (yikes):

Or like this:

How should you choose a theme?

Changing themes is not as easy as pressing a button, so you should really start with a few basic questions about the goals of your WordPress blog:

  • Are you using WordPress for only blogging or an entire website? The more complicated your site design and functionality, the more robust and flexible you’ll need the theme to be.
  • How does the theme reflect your brand or personality? Some themes have a very fixed look and feel which can only be tweaked with code. Other themes, like Headway (affiliate link) are extremely flexible in both style and functionality.
  • Can the theme enable your site to change and grow along with you and your goals? Again, you’ll want something flexible enough for future growth.

You also want to be asking a few questions related to the theme itself:

  • What kind of support does the theme developer offer? This is one of the main differences between free and premium WordPress themes.
  • How flexible is the Page layout? Does it allow you to have 2 columns on single posts and one column on your about Page? This will be more important if your designing a website and not just a blog that’s added to an existing site.
  • Does the theme have a developer community that shares creative ways of using the theme?
  • Who else is using the theme? How are they using it? What industries do they represent? If you’re launching a website to talk about legalizing marijuana and most of the users are lawyers, pick another theme.

Tips for new sites

  • In order to get a better idea of how your site will look with a specific theme, create a Page, a Post and install a few sidebar widgets. This will provide some content to see the theme wrapped around.
  • If you’re a complete beginner, look at a 5-6 previews of free themes to get an idea what elements of your site will change with a theme (watch this video on previewing themes). This way, even if you end up buying a premium theme, you’ll be better educated about what you like and what you don’t like.
  • Colors can be changed, so don’t focus on that. Instead, focus on the overall layout – where elements are placed on each Page.
  • Once you install a theme, look at archives, multi-post pages, single-post pages too see how the layout changes.
  • If you’re not sure if blogging is for you, start with a serviceable free theme. Focus on writing posts instead of getting bogged down with theme choices.
  • If you’re on Twitter, join the #SBT10 chat – every Tuesday night at 9:00PM (EST) for a variety of topics around blogging.
  • Be aware that most a-list bloggers have paid developers to tweak their theme.
  • Read Lorelle’s post called “Choosing a WordPress theme”.

How did you choose your theme?

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John Haydon