Updated January 12, 2017
In WordPress, your blog’s overall look (design) is determined by the theme you choose. When you first install WordPress, your self-hosted site uses a basic default theme which comes prepackaged with WordPress, but most people want to customize their design to make it their own.
In this post, I will share how I chose my theme, which theme I use and tips to help you choose one for your own blog or website.
My referral links are included in this post for products I have personally bought. Using these links is at no cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.
Free themes vs. paid-for themes
Should you use a free theme or a premium theme?
I used free themes for many years and taught myself how to customize them. Free themes are great for those on a budget, but here are some common problems with them:
- Many are not updated regularly.
- Many are abandoned completely.
- There is no support for most of them.
- The quality of the coding is not always ideal.
For these reasons, I switched to a paid-for theme.
If you have the cash to spare, I would highly recommend you do the same. If not, read on for my recommendations for the best free themes.
The WordPress theme I use
But let me be honest. I’m a theme junkie and have a tendency to change my mind regularly. A while back, I bought all the Genesis themes so I can use any of them forever. (Here’s why that was an excellent investment for me.)
5 Reasons I use and recommend Genesis
Genesis is one of the most well-known and reputable WordPress theme companies in the world. They have a vested interest in keeping their customers happy. Not only that, they have built a reliable product. Here are the reasons I use and recommend Genesis.
1. Genesis is built on a 2-part framework (child themes)
A good theme consists of a 2-part system with two layers: the main “parent” theme underneath, and the “child” theme on top.
The “parent” theme provides the functionality of the site and the “child” theme allows design customization without touching (and potentially messing up) the framework, or “parent,” underneath.
If you don’t use a child theme, not only do you run the risk of messing up the functionality every time you edit your design, you will also have to redo your design customizations every time you update or upgrade. Not fun.
What is a WordPress child theme?
The concept of child themes is confusing for many. Here’s an analogy I hope will help.
Imagine you want to paint a beautiful piece of artwork to display in your living room. You have two choices. You can paint directly on the wall, or you can paint on a canvas.
Painting directly on the wall would be risky, wouldn’t it? Because if you make a mistake, you would have to redo the whole wall. Also, if you move to a new house, you would have to repaint the artwork on your new living room wall.
However, if you paint on a canvas, a mistake would only require a new canvas, not a new wall. Second, if you move, you can simply take the canvas with you and rehang it on your new wall. Simple.
It’s the same with themes built on a framework. Making customizations to a parent theme (i.e. a theme without a child theme) is like painting directly on your living room wall. But using and customizing a child theme, is like painting on a canvas.
With a child theme, there’s less to mess up and you won’t have to “repaint” (i.e. make your customizations all over again) when you upgrade your theme. (And plan on upgrading because there are new updates for WordPress all the time.)
I recommend using a child theme, but not all themes come with a child theme. The default WordPress themes, for example, don’t, but you can create your own.
Another excellent benefit of a paid-for theme is support. Genesis has a great support forum and help desk (you’ll be given login info once you go through the purchase process) if you need it.
Especially when you are a new blogger, being able to ask questions and get help is a huge benefit.
3. Mobile responsive
As I mentioned on my list of Blog Design Dos & Don’ts, mobile responsiveness is imperative. Genesis has many mobile responsive child themes to choose from.
Update: When I originally wrote this post, mobile responsive themes were just being introduced. However, as of 2017, most themes available are built with mobile responsiveness in mind, but it’s always a good idea to make sure.
4. Large selection
There are many Genesis child themes to choose from and they continuously adding more. You can buy the child themes individually or you can purchase the Pro Plus All-Theme Package which gives you access to all Genesis child themes (excludes 3rd party themes) at a huge discount.
Tip: If you buy an individual theme, you’ll pay for the Genesis Theme Framework and your chosen child theme together. If you decide to buy a different child theme down the road, you do not need to buy the Genesis Theme Framework again, only the new child theme.
5. Even more features
Which child theme should you choose?
The choices are overwhelming. First, make sure you choose a theme that’s mobile responsive. You can find the Genesis child themes here. Browse through the selection and find a few that stand out to you.
My biggest tip when choosing a theme is to look past the images, colors and fonts. Instead, choose a theme with a layout you like. In other words, focus on the elements on the page (sidebars, main content column, header, footer, etc.), their size and where they are located.
Overlooking the colors and styles is difficult to do for many of us because these are the things that quickly catch our eye. But they should be initially overlooked. Styles, like colors, fonts, background images and similar elements are much easier to change and require less coding than moving elements from one part of the page to another.
Elements vs. style: an analogy
Here’s a simple, although imperfect, analogy to better explain the importance of elements over style.
Pretend you are choosing a new winter coat. Better to choose one that fits your body rather than one with fancy trimmings. You can easily add fancy trimmings later if you’d like, but it’s a lot more complicated to alter the fit of a coat.
Another mistake is to choose (or not choose) a child theme based on its name.
For example, the Foodie Pro theme is lovely and very popular among food bloggers. However, it can work just as well if you’re not a food blogger. Likewise, the Author Pro theme is not only for authors.
Again, look at the layout of the design.
Tip: Sketch out a basic layout of your desired design on a piece of paper before you start looking at child themes. Use other sites as inspiration. What do you want it to look like on the screen? Where do you want things located? Your sketch doesn’t have to be fancy or even terribly detailed. Simply start with these four elements: main content column (about how wide? set to the right? the left? centered on the page?), sidebar(s) (no sidebars? one sidebar? on the right? on the left?), header (how tall? logo centered? logo on the left with links to the right?) and footer (lots of info? minimal?).
Once you have a rough idea of where you want things to go, scroll through the child themes and find ones that best match your sketch.
Another thing to keep in mind is if and how you will monetize your site. For example, will you put ads in your sidebar? Choose a child theme with two or three columns. Do you want large images front and center because you’re showcasing your portfolio? Choose a child theme with gallery capabilities.
Tip: Use the filters at the top of the page to quickly find themes that match your criteria. Note that the homepage of many of the themes might have a different format than the internal pages so be sure to check out and explore the demos for each child theme you are considering.
An alternative to Genesis is Elegant Themes
While I’m no longer using them, Elegant Themes are a second option if you want to try something other than Genesis.
Their flagship theme is called Divi which:
- Is fully mobile responsive
- Comes with a choice of pre-made templates to get you started
- Has a drag-and-drop interface which makes further customizing your theme flexible and easy
No risk: an added benefit
Genesis quick links
There are many resources available to Genesis users. I put this list together to help you find them easily.
- Genesis Child Themes – If you have some coding background and/or will work with a designer, these are all the child themes available. A good designer should be able to customize any of them for you. If you want to work with a StudioPress-recommended developer, find a list here: Genesis Developers.
- Showcase – A list of sites that use the Genesis Framework. This shows how customizable Genesis is.
- StudioPress Pro Plus All-Theme Package – If you are a designer or think you would like to become a designer, or if you think you might be using several different Genesis child themes in the future, consider buying the Pro Plus All-Theme Package. I wrote about when you should (and shouldn’t) buy the whole package.
- Genesis-Specific Plugins – There are plugins created specifically by StudioPress for Genesis. I use Genesis Simple Edits. (Here are all of my Favorite Plugins.)
- Refund Policy – Did you buy Genesis and it didn’t work for you? You can get your money back within 30 days.
- Support Forum – Ask just about any question you can think of in the forum. The moderators are super helpful (requires login).
- Genesis Tutorials – This is a large list of general Genesis tutorials. There are also tutorials by Community Members (requires login) written by Genesis users.
- Responsive Design Tool – A great way to check to see how your site looks on various mobile devices.
- StudioPress Blog – Subscribe to the blog to keep up with updates, new theme releases and more.
- Become a StudioPress affiliate. Every time you refer someone to Genesis, use your affiliate link. Read more about affiliate marketing and my top tips for affiliate marketing.
What are the best free WordPress themes?
When I first started blogging I had virtually no budget so I used free WordPress themes for many years.
If you have similar budget constraints, or if you are not sure if you’ll stick with blogging long enough to justify the purchase of a theme, these are my recommendations for free themes:
1. WordPress default themes – These come prepackaged with your WordPress installation. Each year a new one is released and is named accordingly (i.e. Twenty Seventeen came out in 2017, Twenty Sixteen in 2016, etc.). They are coded by WordPress.org so they are typically safe bets.
If you can, choose the most recent theme available as it is typically written with the most up-to-date standards, but regardless of the one you choose (you might prefer a previous year’s look more), make sure you always keep it updated. Notifications to update your theme will appear in your WordPress Dashboard when available.
Note that these WordPress themes do not come with child themes. As I’ve said, I always recommend using a child theme if you are going to make significant changes or tweaks to your design. The good news is, you can create your own child theme if you’d like. Doing so is frightening to some people because it requires coding, but it’s actually not that hard to do. Here’s a tutorial I would recommend.
2. GeneratePress – This theme has excellent reviews in the WordPress Theme Directory which is always a good sign. And as of this writing, it is updated regularly—another great sign. What’s nice about this theme is that it also has child themes available.
I hope that gives you some great ideas about choosing a theme. Don’t overthink it. As I always say, most things in blogging are fixable and/or changeable. If you start with one theme and want to change it down the road, it’s possible.
Here’s my tutorial which explains how to install a WordPress theme.
Also, if you haven’t already read my design dos & don’ts, make sure you read those. (There’s also a section at the bottom of that post with recommended designers if you’d like help.)
After that, check out the contents page for posts on further topics.