How To Select A Theme For WordPress Blog?

Introduction

In this post, we will discuss different ways one can select theme for WordPress. There are over thousands of options for WordPress in existence today, and choosing one or two out of them can become daunting task for novice or even experienced hands. Recently, I updated look and feel using GeneratePress. Before finalizing, I tested some popular options. Read on to learn about my process of selection.

Table of Contents

  1. What is wrong with stock WordPress Install?
  2. When is the best time to change look and feel for WordPress site?
  3. How to Safely Change WordPress Themes?
  4. Free versus Paid?
  5. Compatibility with Gutenburg and Pagebuilders
  6. How to choose WordPress theme
  7. Options tested for this blog
  8. Wrapping up
  9. References
Screenshot of amarvyas.com website from 2014, with Nanica theme.
Most people would not like a bland theme.

What is wrong with stock WordPress Install?

There is nothing wrong with stock WordPress install. Twenty Twenty, Twenty Twenty One, or older themes are, after all, developed by automattic themselves. The best part- they are standards compliant and keep getting updated periodically. For example,the 2010 or 2011 versions from WordPress were updated as recently as December 2020, nearly a decade after they were first released!

There is a downside, however. Free (or free versions of premium themes) are often limited in functionality. For example, they may be responsive, but may lack some customization option, or custom post types. Really older versions might not be mobile responsive. Finally, they may not support popular page builders.

Tip: If you are confused with which look to choose for your site, start with standard and “look and feel” that comes with your WordPress installation.

At the time of writing this post, most recent version WordPress is 5.6, and the theme is Twenty Twenty One, with lovely pastel colours!

Screenshot of Twenty Twenty One Theme that comes default with stock WordPress install
Twenty Twenty One Theme with Stock WordPress 5.6 Install

Why, then, choose a different theme?

The main reason(s) for choosing a different look for your WordPress site can be one or more of the following:

  1. The standard options may not suit the purpose for which the WordPress site has been created. For example, a membership site or a Woo commerce site with a shop.Or, you may be using a free version that is better meant for blogging than a Portfolio or a Photography site.

2. The user(s) might want to showcase their creative and technical skills.Some offer greater degree of customization via simple menus or toggle switches. Some come with standard templates for different types of sites- Architecture, Business,Photography,and so on.

What is the best Time To Change Look and Feel for website?

The best time to change a theme is when you have created a brand-new site, or you have very little content on it. The reason is rather obvious, but let me mention it here anyways: as a blog or a website grows in size and content, it becomes rather cumbersome to keep track of every little customization or changes you may have made over time.

For example, I changed the default from Hestia Pro to generatePress after much trial and error this week. It was the fourth or fifth time that I changed the look and feel completely, and as always, there were some errors that kept cropping up.

Case in point: when trying the Blocksy, the text appeared very narrow and in three slender columns in desktop version. In case of the stock 2011 theme, some sections I had created for some posts did not show up.

For others, changing look and feel could mean cleaning up the database, disabling plugins, updating scripts, and so on. It is important to note the version of PHP, WordPress and theme itself when selecting a theme for WordPress.

How to Safely Change WordPress Themes?

Many not realize this, but you can create a subdomain, a staging site, or a new site altogether to test out the new themes and plugins. I use Gridpane, a WordPress site and server management SAAS tool. In shared hosting that uses Softaculous, or managed hosting from providers like Kinsta or Flywheel, there is an option to create a staging site.

I will skip the parts that talk about How to create a staging site, and what are the pro’s and con’s of doing so. Let us get back to the topic on hand, that is, changing the themes for WordPress site.

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Should you select a Free or a paid WordPress theme?

Free or paid, the choice is yours. I believe in buying the subscriptions. Sometimes I donate- this is also a great way to support the developers.

I prefer to start with a free version of a theme. Once I am convinced about the usefulness of that theme, I buy its subscription. The ones that do not make a cut are promptly uninstalled. It is also a recommended good practice.

Over the years, I have used the paid versions of Nanica (this is now discontinued), Atticus (2018), followed by Visualmodo (2018), Themeisle (Hestia and Neve Pro), and most recently, GeneratePress.

Nancia theme was purchased back in 2014 for my author website, amarvyas.com. In the months to come, this site may get revived as I plan to start publishing books again. Albeit with a different theme. The Visualmodo suite of themes was purchased from Stacksocial, and I used them for this blog as well as for gaathastory.com for a couple of years. These themes support the WP Bakery builder, which was not my cup of tea. Theme variations include Zenith, Marvel, Ink, Spark, Real, Minimalist.

Subscription for Themeisle were purchased in 2019 as an Appsumo “Lifetime” Deal. GeneratePress was purchased during Black Friday 2020.

Where to find good themes

The WordPress ecosystem consists of thousands of themes, plugins, templates and scripts. Most common resource for finding them is the directory on WordPress site, theme forest, Code Canyon, are some relevant and useful resources. I typically start with the WP directory, as do most people. This site includes a lot of relevant information about a theme, such as:

  • Install base for the theme.
  • Reviews from users.
  • Any security or other issues (for example related to PHP version)
  • How often is the theme updated?

Example: Information on Baskerville Theme by Andres Noren (Designer of the Twenty Twenty WordPress Theme)

Note the below word of advice:

If you see a theme that hasn’t been updated for more than 6 or 7 months, then it’s likely not up-to date-with the latest security patches and protocols that people are using.

-blogtyrant.com

Compatibility with Page builders, Plugins… and Gutenberg

A page builder is an interesting development in recent years as far as the world of WordPress is concerned. I have written about Page builders on this blog, as well as I co-authored a 6 part series on Pagebuilders in LowEndSpirit site. One segment deals exclusively with page builders for WordPress.

Compatibility with the popular page builders such as Elementor, Beaver Builder and Brizy is often mentioned as a key feature of particular theme. Blocksy, for example supports Brizy, Hestia Pro mentions support for Elementor. While reading the description, look for keywords such as responsive, premium version, and so on. Other features include blog, woo commerce, one page menu, custom post types, multiple layouts, A specific theme may or may not support a particular page builder. If you use a page builder and are looking to try a new theme, check the documentation before taking the plunge.

GeneratePress with Marketer Template. Supports Gutenberg, GenerateBlocks and Elementor among other page builders.
GeneratePress Supports Gutenberg, GenerateBlocks Elementor, and other page builders.

Same goes for the plugins. Some plugins may be designed for a particular theme. For example, Otter plugin is recommended for Hestia. It offers extra menus for Elementor, as well as social media sharing. I did not find much use for it when I moved to GeneratePress, for which GenerateBlocks is more suitable. Since version 5 of WordPress, compatibility or support for Gutenberg has become paramount. Gutenberg blocks are the way forward for WordPress sites, support for Gutenberg are gaining prominence as the user base for newer versions of WordPress widens.

I had a lot of fun, frustration and learning this week while I was selecting a new theme for this blog. Like I mentioned earlier, the originally I used Hestia Pro, I experimented with GeneratePress and Neve. The latter worked well, except then it didn’t. You can read more about my experience in this post.

How to choose a WordPress theme- my (selection) process

  1. Know your requirements well. This website is primarily is a blog, there is no member registration or shopping option required. Selecting a theme that supports the latter might just add bloat.
  2. Check the theme’s documentation, reviews and settings. A bit of a recap from the previous sections: How recent is the theme, security issues, compatibility with page builders, Gutenburg, plugins I prefer to use, and PHP version. In 2021, any theme that still recommends PHP 5.6 as the ‘minimum’ version should ideally be skimmed over.
  3. At a minimum, the theme should support Gutenberg, it is desirable to have support for Brizy or Elementor, depending on the type of site. (read: How to Customize Your WordPress Theme With Elementor on Elementor.com)
  4. Test, test, and test again. Make sure the theme supports the plugins, scripts and other features you want to use. For example, I prefer masonry grid for my blog page. A theme that requires major customisation will not be on my list.
  5. Browser compatibility: Some themes may support not all browsers, or older versions of some browsers. Also check for supported plugins, SEO friendliness,
    Does the them have multi-language support? Presently, this blog is almost entirely in English. Starting next month, I will endeavour to publish at least one post in Hindi or Marathi every week. Which brings us to the next point.
  6. Support for google Fonts. I disable the google fonts, but you may prefer to use them.
  7. Last but not the least, how lightweight the theme is. I do not like bloated themes. Let us face it, frugal is the way to go over the long run. The stock theme for ClassicPress (a fork of WordPress) is derived from Susty, which is 7 Kb in size! In contrast, some WordPress themes are over 1 Mb in size. Any theme which is less than 50 Kb in size get brownie points in my book.

How do you choose a theme for your WordPress site?

Options tested for this blog

I had shortlisted GeneratePress, a premium responsive theme that offers custom post types, different layouts, and is compatible with popular page builders like Elementor and Brizy. Before finalizing Generatepress, I wanted to test out a few other themes so that I do not develop a buyer’s remorse at a later time. In very early days of my WordPress journey, I experienced this emotion several times. Therefore, as a matter of habit, I zero in on one or two themes, and then test out a few others. I consider this a process of elimination.

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Below are some options I tested

You might have noted that the above are also some of the most popular free WordPress themes. Neve, Kadence, GeneratePress and Blocksy are premium responsive themes with blog feature.While testing GeneratePress, I tried the stock theme, later the templates for Developer, Marketer, Speed, and WordSmith. The theme for this blog  is a customized version of WordSmith.

I used a staging site for different themes, with GeneratePress on this live site. Note that installing multiple themes is not recommended, and do not try out new themes on a live site. You WILL experience issues. For example, in the mobile version of this theme, the hamburger menu at the top right exists, but it does.. nothing. Some images are not loading (again!) and custom blocks created for Hestia Pro will not work. As always, test, test and then test again!

Wrapping up

You might have guessed by now that selecting a theme for your WordPress blog is a matter of personal preference, as well as the purpose for the site. With so many options for WordPress, it can get overwhelming, exciting, and confusing at the same time. Hope my experience (based on years of experimentation and failures) will in some way help you decide which WordPress theme to use for your website.

Update: You can read the wrap-up of the ‘themes for WordPress’ series of posts here.

References

  1. Selecting the Perfect WordPress Theme — 9 Things You Should Consider (wpbeginner.com)
  2. Do’s and Don’ts of Picking a WordPress Theme (wpengine.com)
  3. How to Choose a WordPress Theme for Your Blog (blogtyrant.com)
  4. How to Choose a WordPress Theme? 4 Things to Pay Attention To (themeisle.com)
  5. 32 Free WordPress Themes For Effective Content Marketing (neilpatel.com)
  6. How to Change a WordPress Theme (Without Breaking Your Website) (kinsta.com)
  7. Best WordPress Themes for Blogging — A successful WordPress blog needs a great theme. (cyberchimps.com)
Image of a man with a laptop, ready to blog.