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I keep track of all the major theme developers, since the majority of my day is spent customizing their themes. It’s got me thinking, maybe I should produce my own line of themes. I do it for fun all the time, but I never want to have to go through the polishing that would be required for a good flexible theme. But it’s been long enough now and I would have imagined that there would be a lot more stable popular themes available for free. But the majority of the themes in the WordPress repository are pretty sloppy. They all have their benefits, but as a whole always lack in one area. If the design is good, the code is bad. If there are cleaver back end options in the code, the design is bleak.  This is why I always recommend purchasing premium themes if you are not a coder.  If you want to take a project or task on in a serious long term manner and want to enjoy the benefits of the latest WP features and plugins, then the core theme  you use should have clean code and hopefully enough integration tools that you don’t have to even touch the theme files.

Just FYI, in interest of full disclosure, I do work with the iThemes team from time to time on theme development and I do a lot of customization work for iThemes customers.

Recommended Premium Theme Providers

  • iThemes was one of the earliest premium theme providers who focused on providing a wide variety of available themes that focused on more than just blogging. They saw the power of WordPress as a CMS and provided themes that could be easily customized to build commercial quality websites. They still have the largest selection of themes from any other premium theme provider. If you are commercially developing sites on WordPress, then a membership to their Theme Club provides a lot of resources. Also, they release these themes as GPL so you can use them for any project as many times as you need.  They have a large community through which they are also offering training and educational resources. Their new flagship theme “Builder” is becoming one of the most flexible theme platforms to customize and build from.
  • Elegant Themes: I’m a big fan of the design style of Nick Roach. Every theme in his gallery is well polished and well executed as far as design and interface. His pricing structure is uncomprehendingly affordable, but intended for personal use only. And for the most part, the themes are intended for graphic heavy blogging. For example, a photo for every post and a lot of ways to feature articles using images from the posts. I find that for people who don’t have the photographic resources, that image heavy blogs hinder posting.  Elegant Themes are customizable for novice to advanced developers, but if you just want to give it your own color or style most themes come with a variety of configuration options. The only draw back is the licensing. It’s not fully GPL and there is no commercial license. So if you wanted to use it as a base to make sites for clients, it makes it kind of awkward, because technically, the client needs to purchase a membership. But the market is maturing and most clients understand and are willing to do it.
  • StudioPress: Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve worked on any themes from StudioPress. They do have a line of quality design themes. But since they have started focusing on a framework, ‘Genesis’, they haven’t produced a variety of designs. And the variety they do have all kind of blend in design, which could be good if you want to develop a line of different purposed sites that need to blend well in design. I have heard good things about Genesis, and they are coming out with designs built on Genesis that is adding to their variety. Worth checking out when you have a big project that needs a clean well laid out design.

There are other premium theme developers out there, more every day. But these are what I see as the industry standards and ones in which I don’t get a ton of complaints or “fix” requests. I see more and more people moving to frameworks, although I am not personally fond of them, but that is because I know WordPress like my back yard, and if I need to make changes, I would rather work with the raw system then have to work around a third party system. Frameworks are good for users who don’t want to learn CSS, HTML, or PHP and just want to be able to make minor layout and color changes to their site. Honestly, you can get pretty creative working inside of a framework. As someone who want’s more freedom to tweak and customize, I appreciate standard themes a little more. Although, once I customize a theme, I will probably have to keep it up with WordPress changes continually, but this is good practice, and I tend to keep my themes up faster then the developers do since I’m always playing with the latest WordPress betas on my development site. You’ll notice all my personal sites are running Elegant Themes. Two main reasons for that. I’m poor and his $20/year fee is the most affordable way to get access to great themes and second, I think we have the same taste and style. Although I always like to customize the themes, I often find there is not much I actually want to change when it comes to the design. Also, although the themes do have a variety of options, they don’t interfere with the theme in a way that makes customizations difficult.

I know with all that said, the world doesn’t need another premium theme developer. But I am considering creating a base of themes to release for free on the directory. I’ve always wanted to, but just never taken the time. Mainly because, although I want to give back to the community, I know that people who use free themes are often ungrateful snots. It’s strange, but the community improves greatly in the premium market. Maybe I’ll try one this summer and see how it works out.

Leave a comment and tell me what kind of theme or functions  I should include in my first publicly released theme.