Advanced Home Inspection: Choosing a Theme

Advanced Home InspectionAdvanced Home Inspection’s site is another project that I developed in partnership with Infusion Studio. Its development will serve to illustrate one of the conundrums of WordPress development. What theme should be used for the new site?

There are basically four choices:

  1. Use a default theme.
  2. Use a free WordPress.org theme.
  3. Purchase a commercial theme.
  4. Create a one-off theme from scratch.

Of course, I am an advocate of always using a child theme, no matter the source of the parent theme. Using a child theme means you can make the modifications you need to the child theme without the risk of having them overwritten by updates to the parent theme.

Still, how does one decide on a theme?

The Advanced Home Inspection site is based on a commercial theme. In this case, I was lucky; my design partner, Infusion Studio, picked the theme, created the logo, and suggested color scheme and font changes. The commercial theme they selected worked well as the parent theme for the child theme I created, and all was good, but it’s not always that way. Most of the time, it comes down to cost.

Using a Default Theme

Most of my customers opt to go with a modified child theme based on one of the default themes that come with WordPress. WordPress typically releases a new theme each year, and while some years the focus of the theme is too specific to make it suitable for general use out-of-the-box, these default themes can almost always be modified for the purposes of most web sites.

Modified default themes come with a number of benefits:

  • Default themes are almost certain to work now and in the future with most plugins and current versions of WordPress.
  • The WordPress.org team tends to keep default themes up-to-date, even years after their release.
  • Default themes are very well-coded and mostly trouble-free.
  • There is a lot of documentation and support information out there to help a developer customize a default theme.

Unless a customer wants a lot of customization, default themes are usually less expensive over the long run than a subscription-based commercial theme, and far less expensive than a custom theme built from scratch.

The major downside of using a modified default theme is that it takes a special kind of client to make the approach work. It helps if the client already has an idea of what they want their site to look like, and if they can point out example sites that have a similar look, that’s even better. Otherwise, as I have ended up doing more than I’d like, one ends up “trying things” in an effort to come up with a look the client is pleased with. Doing so can get very expensive, and I discourage it when I can.

Free Themes from WordPress.org

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of free themes available through WordPress.org. Contributed by the community, some of these are really striking and well-coded. Some of them aren’t. It takes a lot of time to comb through them to find a theme that matches one’s vision for a new site, though WordPress’ built-in theme search tool (Appearance -> Themes -> Add New) makes it easier.

The difficult–and really time-consuming–part of using one of these themes is testing them to make sure they don’t cause conflicts with the WordPress core or the plugins used on a given site. There’s also no way to know if the developer will continue to keep the theme updated as new versions of WordPress are released. (Of course, commercial theme developers come and go too, so there’s no guarantee of continued support with a commercial developer, either.)

One way to offset the potential cost of a broken theme down the line is to find one of the free, WordPress.org themes that can be used with only minor customization, say just a new logo. The fewer modifications that need to be made before the theme can “go live,” the less the client has invested in the theme, and the less overall cost will be involved should it have to be abandoned down the line if it becomes incompatible with a future version of WordPress or a plugin.

 Commercial Themes

First, I must admit that I am reluctant to use commercial themes. My reticence dates back to the early days of open-source software, Joomla! in particular. I had clients that were very excited to try fancy commercial themes for their Joomla! sites, and I willingly went along. The commercial themes looked fantastic, why not?

The “why not” was that some of those commercial themes were image- and javascript-heavy, extremely resource hungry, and consequently both slow to load and an undue burden on the server where they were hosted. Many of them also were marketed via demo versions whose output was only possible with extensions or plugins at an additional cost, images that weren’t included with the theme, or content that was simulated for a good display result and not “real-world” content. To make matters worse, my clients didn’t like paying the subscription fees that were necessary to qualify for the updates needed to keep the themes up-to-date.

I’ve seen the same scenario play out with commercial WordPress themes on numerous occasions.

However, there are some really nice-looking, efficient, and reasonably priced commercial WordPress themes out there. If one can be found that is close to the look a client wants, and the customizations it allows out-of-the-box meet all the site’s needs, a commercial WordPress theme can be the most cost-effective method of styling a client’s site.

Advanced Home Inspection’s site is an example of a site for which a commercial theme was the best solution. The theme chosen matched the color scheme planned for the site, the available configuration options met the needs of the site, and the developer of the theme set it up so that a child theme is created automatically when the theme is installed.

Create a Theme from Scratch

This used to be a much more popular approach than it seems to be these days.

It’s very hard to convince a client to pay for developing a custom theme when there are so many less-expensive alternatives. However, if a client comes along who has both the financial resources to pay for it and the desire to have a one-of-a-kind site, this is the way to go.